I ONCE ATE more than 40 cheeseburgers during a single, exhaustive week-and-a-half stretch. This was about a decade ago, when I was a restaurant critic for a glossy magazine that bears the name of our fair city.
It was an era of generous editorial budgets and fat-cat expense accounts, a golden age that existed just before the explosion of social media, user-generated reviews and Yelp.
During those halcyon years, I could tell my parents that, yes, it was totally legitimate for a grown man to eat 40 cheeseburgers and call it work.
Back then, I saw my burger binge as a selfless act, a service provided for my readers so they didn't have to do it. Now? My, my, how things have changed. The role of the critic has, of course, been greatly diminished. Not because critics have become extinct, but rather the opposite: Everyone is now a critic.
Why rely on one imperious, all-knowing, capital-C Critic who waddles from table to table (quite possibly wearing an ascot, monocle and cape) nibbling and sipping and then proclaiming a verdict? So 20th century! Much better to crowd-source reviews, right? Throw everyone's opinion up against the wall and see how it aggregates? That's how our contemporary thinking goes.
Which is why I found myself at Royal Tavern, on East Passyunk, last Wednesday night, eating burgers with 20 people who call themselves Burger Club. Stephanie Hilton, the founder, sums up Burger Club's deceptively simple concept: "We eat burgers. And we rate them. You know those Red Hat Society ladies? We're kind of like them. Except we eat burgers."
Each month, the group visits a new spot known for its burgers and, after eating, members vote from 1 to 5 based on six specific criteria: bun, topping, atmosphere, meat, taste and overall. So far, Burger Club has reviewed 12 burger joints. Results are published online.
At Royal Tavern, there was plenty of jovial chitchat, but our focus was on the menu's two burger offerings: the Angus Burger, with bacon, caramelized onions, pickled longhots and chili mayonnaise; and the chalkboard-special Bacon Burger, which apparently contained 50 percent bacon and 50 percent beef in the patty.
Assuming everyone at the table was a carnivore, I asked one Burger Club member, Megan Bressler, which burger she was getting. "Oh, I'm a vegetarian and there's no veggie burger here," she said. This has happened before. At Pub & Kitchen, for instance, Bressler just ate french fries. When the waitress arrived, Bressler apologized to the table: "I'm sorry, I'm getting the grilled tempeh club sandwich."
"You should say you're sorry," said Jim Thomas, the club's self-proclaimed CTO, since he's the one who designed its website. "This is Burger Club!"
Bigger than burgers
Joelen Pastva, who was sitting next to me, told me that she has become a more experienced and adventurous burger eater since she began attending club meetings. "I started in medium territory, and I have gradually gone more rare," she said.
"We have no qualifications that make us expert in burgers," said Hilton, 24, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College who works as a contractor for the Department of Defense. "But we do take a lot of care in rating the burgers. We really break down the burger in its key points. This is a very detailed vote. It's not just like, 'Oh yeah, I had a good burger at Good Dog.' It takes a lot to wow this crowd."
The crowd, as Hilton describes it, is a mix of Bryn Mawr grads and "Passyunk Avenue people" in their 20s and 30s. The club's been growing steadily since it launched last June. "You feel like you're part of something," Hilton said. "We are the Burger Club. It's such a silly thing. I mean, we do take ourselves seriously. But on the other hand, it's fun. I'd love it if I died being known as the Burger Lady."
While Hilton may not have "expert qualifications," she certainly has been doing the amateur restaurant critic thing for a while. She started writing reviews for Yelp and became one of the site's first "elite" members.
Lately, like a lot of people - including bitter restaurateurs - Hilton has become disillusioned by Yelp. "I don't think Yelp is the same anymore," Hilton said. "Yelp has kind of lost its allure, because so many people are on it now, and there are so many bad or negative reviews. When I first started, I took a lot of care with my reviews. I tried to make them constructive. Now, you just have so many people on there that just don't care."
A club convert?
The indy Burger Club, with its own unique rating system, could be the new model for the next generation of post-Yelp amateur restaurant critics. While I often question the methodology of crowd-sourced reviews, I have to admit that Burger Club's scoring system has led me to some great burgers over the past week.
In particular, I loved the burger at Sketch, in Fishtown, with one of the best buns I've ever eaten (scoring 4.86 on Burger Club's scale). With an overall score of 4.31, Sketch was the second-highest-rated burger on Burger Club.
I also revisited PYT at the Piazza in Northern Liberties for its great burgers (Burger Club rating, 4.08). However, the weird atmosphere in the place - what my dining companion called "the dorm cafeteria for the people living in those apartment buildings" - made my burger less enjoyable than it should have been. Burger Club dutifully had given PYT a low 3.43 for "atmosphere." But for me, a 4.43 for "meat" doesn't make up for the lousy atmosphere.
It's these sorts of judgments that show the limitations of a numerical system. For instance, the highest rated burger on Burger Club is Redhound Grille in Paoli at 4.43 - though Hilton admitted that only seven Burger Club members turned out that night, which is a significantly smaller sampling.
Still, numbers have a way of making us see old favorites with clear eyes. I'm a regular at Good Dog, which I love, but when I saw that Burger Club had scored Good Dog's burger 3.76, I had to be honest and admit that their burger has been slipping - probably why I've been ordering other things of late.
Hilton had the same sinking experience. "The Good Dog has always been a favorite of mine," she said. "But when we went, we found that it wasn't that good."
Royal Tavern, however, was a hit with most of Burger Club, in particular the Bacon Burger: "Bacon burger was DELICIOUS. I'd go as far to say it's the best burger I've had in Philly"; "Bacon in the meat!!! The bun perfectly absorbed all the burger could give."
Others however, disagreed:
"The bacon burger sounded good conceptually, but came across as salty. My onions were not caramelized, and that made me sad."
Overall, Royal Tavern rated 4.41, nudging Sketch out of second place.
I personally would call it a tie, with Sketch's bun slightly better, and Royal Tavern's meat slightly better.
For what it's worth, I preferred Royal Tavern's regular Angus Burger over the Bacon Burger.
Even as I say that, I realize it doesn't matter.
Here's the humbling thing for me:
At Burger Club, mine is simply one man's opinion.
For Burger Club reviews or information on how to join, visit burgerclubphl.com.
To sample some club-rated burgers:
Royal Tavern, 937 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-6694, royaltavern.com
SketchBurger, 413 E. Girard Ave., 215-634-3466, sketch-burger.com
GoodDog, 224 S. 15th St., 215-985-9600, gooddogbar.com
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.