Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: George Voronov
The simplicity of a burger’s ingredients make it an eternal comfort food. Yet it’s that same simplicity that lends itself to countless variations. With the rise of fast-casual dining and the expansion of burger menus across Irish restaurants, we’re living in a golden age of the burger. And Bunsen burgers are the among the best of the bunch.
There was a time in Ireland when we thought a chipper quarter pounder was the pinnacle of the burger. Burger culture first arrived in Dublin in the 1970s. Several American-style hamburger joints “from the fairly grotty to the slightly chic” sprung up in the city in the mid-1970s, according to Ambiguous Republic by Diarmaid Ferriter. Most notably, Captain America’s opened in 1971. That was revolutionary for its time. The place became “a melting pot in a city finding its feet”.
The burger joint grew legs from there. During the showband era in Ireland over fifty years ago, chip van owners vied for key positions outside dance halls and at carnivals, festivals, and other gatherings. These burgers were oozing with tomato ketchup, mustard or brown sauce. They came with bags of chips laced with salt and vinegar and a mineral to polish it off with. Usually coke.
Somewhere in the 90s, the mega American chains arrived. Kids became very familiar with the Happy Meal hamburger. Then Eddie Rockets got into the game. All these came with American-style burgs, shakes and fries. But none of them were particularly good.
With a new decade came a new Irish iteration of the burger. The ‘gourmet’ burger trend kicked off with the likes of Bobo’s making burgers with so many toppings only those unhinged jaw creatures from Beetlejuice could get their teeth around it. Then in 2013, something magical happened. Bunsen Burger opened and cut through the noise to bring us an icon of a burger. The Double Cheese Burger.
The burger itself has gone on to become an icon. The ultimate feed. It’s a carefree meal, but not aggressively so. The burger is unputdownable good. Each style of chips is a perfectly pitched accompaniment, depending on your crunch to fluff preference. Their shakes have a simple silky smoothness that keeps you sipping. The meal is such an icon that it would give Dianna Ross a run for her money.
It takes confidence to open a restaurant that sells only one thing. The small menu does not translate to limited flavour. They speak fluent flavour. The confidence is earned at Bunsen. They do a classic American burger better than the yanks. You can add cheese or have a double or a double with cheese. You can have it with fries: thick-cut, shoestring or sweet potato. And that’s it. There are toppings. They have the classic pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard and mayo. There are no desserts.
All burgers arrive at the table wrapped in bright branded paper on an aluminium tray. Quality brand recognition is key to their minimalism. The ketchup is always Heinz, the mustard French’s, the mayonnaise Hellman’s, the vinegar Sarson’s.
I think they were the first to really include good-quality pickles. Quality pickles level up a burg subtly because the acidity of the vinegar works as a palate cleanser. The sharp tang of a dill, sour, or half-sour pickle lets you taste the rest of the flavours more clearly.
The first and most conspicuous answer to why we’re still obsessed with Bunsen is: its cracking burgers are affordable. It fills you just as much as a fillet of beef would, if not more. And if you order chips, Bunsen always comes with a generous pile of fries. So it’s an economical, filling option. That’s appealing to literally everyone.
But I think the honest answer is a touch more complicated than that. It’s not just that their high-quality burgers are affordable. It’s that they’re easy to eat. The meat is minced fresh that day; you don’t have to do much chewing. It’s also served in the kind of high-quality bun that doesn’t fall apart. There’s no cutting, only lifting.
After nine years, it’s safe to say the Bunsen burger, shake, and chips are enduring icons of contemporary Irish cuisine. They symbolise abundance, accessibility and the beginning of Dublin’s golden age of casual dining culture. People across the city still talk about Bunsen burgers with a reverence that snobby gourmands reserve for multi-course tasting menus at trendy restaurants.
A relentless and sometimes revisionist nostalgia permeates the now nine Bunsen venues. Their burgers taste like youth. But they’re better than any burger you ever actually ate in your youth. Unless, of course, you’re still young.
Sometimes, when we go out for lunch or dinner, we want the taste of the familiar. Nothing, these days, is more familiar than the taste of a proper Bunsen Burger. Specifically, the char that materialises on the exterior of the meat after it hits the grill. That specific aroma and taste conjures up memories. It’s comforting.
We have all spent weeks of our lives eating dozens of burgers in every pursuit of burger perfection. Just about every restaurant in Dublin does one. It’s one of those expected menu items, along with some theme variations. Most are mediocre. But Bunsen turned the tide against ‘it’ll do’ burgers and showed the people of Ireland what was possible.
The wholesome but minimalist streamlined aesthetic they retained from the first Bunsen through the most recent means that whenever you’re in a Bunsen, you know you’re in Bunsen. It’s homogeneous without being dull or dreary.
You will reliably get a good burger every time you eat here. There is a streamlined process that never rests on its laurels. Bunsen uses Black Aberdeen Angus beef and a mixture of cuts from the fore and hindquarter to make their juicy burgs. Courtesy of the stalwart FX Buckley the beef does most of the work. As it should in any good burger. They grind their beef every morning and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they’re still the only burger joint in town grinding and binding their own patties.
The entire chain still has the same menu we all fell in love with and queued up for in 2013.
Characteristically the cousins, Tom and Fin Gleeson, who founded Bunsen, are proper gourmands themselves. They know their food, and their staff are into a good feed. So they’ve booked their staff soirée at Allta Summer House.
Bunsen didn’t invent this type of burger joining, but it was undoubtedly the best at bringing it to Ireland. You’re likely aware of the meteoric rise of the “fast-casual” restaurant. Fast-casual is a bet that fast-food customers will spend a bit more and wait longer for higher-quality food. Bunsen went all in on this, and they clearly backed the right house at the right time.
All in all, burgers have always been popular because burgers are as good a unit of food as ever there was. They feed us when we need to be fed. And for that, we will forever be grateful to the humble burger, especially the Bunsen Double Cheese Burger.