A flat ring of meat is not a hamburger. Somehow, 4food, New York City’s newest attempt at a healthy restaurant, thinks it is. And they think that by filling the meat doughnut with vegetables–and filling their restaurant with screens–they can capitalize on (last summer’s) burger craze.
Definitions of hamburgers aside, 4food’s burgers (as I’ll reluctantly call them) are aggressively mediocre. The restaurant, which opens September 7, aims to “de-junk fast food” with healthy ingredients and tons of burger permutations. The result: the W(hole)burger, a ring of meat filled with vegetables.
To eat at 4food, first you design your burger. You choose from a slew of meats, toppings, so-called Veggiescoops, and buns. The restaurant also offers skewers of meat, which is where the burger detritus–the centers–go after they’re poked away. I had a brioche bun and a beef circle filled with spinach and pine nuts, topped with manchego cheese and mustard. The best thing was the mustard, followed by the spinach. That’s just relative to the other things: Both the brioche and burger were dry and bland, and the machego was some sort of American cheese fakery. I’m whining, yes, and those are pretty high-end ingredients for a fast-food place, but high-quality ingredients don’t mean anything if they don’t taste good. (The only compliment my friend could muster up was “good mayonnaise.”)
Really, though, 4food is about the “experience,” no matter how much the restaurant touts the deliciousness, healthiness, and sustainability of its food. The night before I went to 4food, I created my burger online and was quickly encouraged to promote my burger on the 4food site (the restaurant is all about social media, especially newfangled sites like Foursquare). After getting to the restaurant and telling the cashier I was there and hungry, she placed my order. Eyes glued to the giant screen in front of the kitchen, I waited for my number to appear. It never did, but the frazzled man distributing the burgers–on bulky cardboard trays with handles–eventually called my name. I went to 4food for the opening of an art installation promoting the restaurant, so the hectic ordering and waiting was to be expected. But I easily got a sense of how heavily the place relies on technology–and how in-your-face that technology is.
Screens are everywhere in 4food. The menus fade in and out on screens above the registers, and employees walk around with iPads. Soon, all the tables will have iPads and Androids for ordering and surfing the Web while you eat. (God forbid you’re without Internet while you’re eating.) People can order on the Internet before coming in, or they can use one of the on-table screens, or get help from an employee with a screen, or–and this is for the real losers, apparently–order at the counter.
I can’t decide whether techno-ordering is awesome or idiotic. In theory, swiping your hands across a screen seems like a great way to make the process efficient and clear (and comfortable for those averse talking to strangers). But, as Grub Street points out, how well can these screens withstand all that food?
In the end, it just seems wrong. Sure, eating is about community. But social networks driven by burger “popularity” are so artificial and antithetical to the calm of a good meal that they cast a digital shadow over any possibility of community (or good food, for that matter). I don’t want my dinner to be about self-promotion fueled by thinly veiled free marketing for the restaurant. I want it to be about dinner.
My advice: For those stuck working in Midtown, afraid of being offline during lunch, 4food’s circular meats and screens may be just the thing you need. But for people who still don’t have Kindles and like their burgers with centers, stay away from 4food’s “de-junk fast food” network. It’ll be good for you.