ThaT Burger opened on Watford High Street in August 2009.
It's an odd location for a new burger joint that's bringing American-style fast food burger culture to the UK, not least because Watford is not renowned for it's dining scene – the local market for genuinely good fast food is relatively small. I know many burger obsessives willing to travel clear across London for a good burger. I'm not confident the same applies to Watford!
Still, I'd read good things about them and I work just a few minutes walk away, so I finally made my first visit on my first day back at work, in January.
Inspiration for ThaT Burger comes from from US chains In N Out, Five Guys, Sonic and others, none of which I've visited but all of which I've read lots and lots about. The photos in this post on Five Guys, Chicago makes that clear, from decoration alone.
The interior is very much a regular fast food burger joint with a simple red, white and chrome colour scheme.
The full menu is located on the pillar; the meal deal options on the overhead boards.
A standard burger (with two patties) with a regular soft drink and fries, comes to £4.55. You can down size to a single patty burger meal for £3.80 or pay more for additional toppings (including different types of cheese, bacon, jalapenos) or to substitute onion rings for the fries, or a milkshake or J20 for your regular fizzy drink.
Alternatively you might fancy a chicken burger, a falafel veg burger, an order of buffalo chicken wings or a portion of homemade cheesecake.
We experienced a minor frustration with placing our order, working through the numbered panels on the overhead menu boards: we tried to order a burger meal, then give our chosen toppings, followed by our drink and then our side. Unfortunately, the till software is not set up to match the menu boards and the member of staff who served us insisted on skipping ahead to fries and onion rings, which threw us a little bit. Not a big deal, just a minor detail.
Orders made, you will be given a pager to let you know when your order is ready for collection – orders are prepared freshly for each customer. You can choose to grab a seat or pop back out onto the high street, if you prefer, though it's unlikely you'll have to wait more than a few minutes.
Our order was ready very quickly and we got stuck in.
The burgers were pretty good! Pete went for a standard two-patty burger plus American cheese. I chose the standard plus guacamole and mushrooms.
The patties were fairly thin (to allow for fast cooking, given that orders are cooked fresh) so a double patty is the minimum number I'd want. The beef was good quality, with a pleasant flavour.
Pete's American cheese was just as you'd expect, with that strangely plastic quality of its kind. My guacamole was rather nice but didn't go that well with the gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato also included. I'd ask to skip the gherkins, at the very least, if you go for guacamole yourself. The mushrooms, I'm not sure about – they were actually too strong and reminded me of rehydrated dried ones. I picked most of them out and then my burger was just right.
Fries are hand cut on site, with the skin left on. They were good.
Onion rings were a thing of beauty and absolutely fantastic. Probably the best that I can remember having, certainly in the span of my working memory. The onion was sweet and cooked just enough to be both soft and have a bite. The batter was very, very light and crispy and only just clung to the onion. A thing of wonder!
On my second and third visits, I opted for the chicken burger instead of beef. Oh, my goodness me! Like the onion rings, this blew me away – easily the best chicken burger I can remember! A generously sized, moist chunk of chicken, evenly bread crumbed and freshly fried and served with the same default gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato. Really, really excellent!
My only request would be to have homemade coleslaw as an additional topping – my very favourite thing to have with a chicken burger.
Oh and can I say a word about the milkshakes? ThaT Burger use high quality ingredients and stir real fruit into the frozen drink before serving. My banana and chocolate milkshake had a wide straw so I could suck up chunks of soft, fresh banana and broken up pieces of chocolate bar – yes I needed to chew now and then! It was mighty fine, as was the strawberry milkshake Pete had on a later visit and the strawberry banana one I had another time.
For a regular meal deal, with some additional toppings, you're looking at about £5. If you go for onion rings, milkshake or more toppings, you'll hit the £6 mark. Of course, you can make it a blow out by adding chicken wings and cheesecake, if you've got the room!
Whilst the prices are a little higher than the main high street fast food burger chains, especially when those chains are running one of their price promotions, I'd say they are very reasonable for what you get. What you get is good.
Judging by the Wall Of Fame, some of the regulars haven't held back from ordering extra patties or competing for the fastest 10-patty burger eating time!
Having had such a great experience on our first visit, I made a quick phone call and arranged to pop in the following week meet and interview one of the owners, Justin.
Justin launched ThaT Burger with his brother Ian, plus a couple of other investor partners. He tells me he and Ian are "partners in everything we do" and work together on their various businesses. Ian runs restaurant businesses The Rotisserie and Delisserie; Justin runs an internet business; they also have a catering business.
How did ThaT Burger come about?
Justin lived in California for 10 years. He tells me "there are quite a few [burger restaurant] concepts over there, In N Out being the oldest one, Five Guys is another, which has been an explosion over the last 8 years..."
"I love burgers, that's why I've opened this… it's not just that I lived in California! I love burgers, I've eaten burgers every day for the last 25 years, probably more than I should have eaten. I know what a burger is supposed to be…"
This genuine love for burgers, together with inspiration from across the pond, lead to Justin and Ian developing their own brand of fast food burgers for the UK.
Their burgers, Justin tells me, are somewhere between In N Out and Five Guys. Their fries are Belgian style, and the decision to keep the skin on came from asking their Facebook fans for input. The onion rings were inspired by those at a well-known chain in South Africa (where they were born and grew up). The milkshakes take a leaf from the fresh fruit ices and smoothies at Sonic. All were refined by the brothers and trialled (with the help of Facebook fans again) to appeal to the local market.
"Look, we do very few things here but everything we do we do better than most, especially in a fast food environment, I'm not claiming to have the best burger in the world, I'm claiming to have the best fast food burger in England, without a doubt!"
On those I've sampled so far, I'd have to agree with him!
The biggest question mark for me is the location.
I mean, this is a concept that needs a sufficiently large audience who appreciate a really good fast food burger and are willing to pay a little more than they might spend at BK and McDs for the privilege. There are certainly some of those punters in Watford, but clearly not enough.
Justin candidly agrees that location is their biggest mistake and that he's somewhat frustrated. Their very loyal fans visit regularly but the masses are not beating a path to the door.
"There's something about a burger that is cool, for me at least, but Watford is not the right place."
He has confidence in the concept and tells me that they are talking to investors and looking for other sites.
I'm gunning for London, maybe Soho or Camden… I shall keep my fingers crossed.
ThaT Burger is located on The Parade (a continuation of Watford's High Street, at the East end).
For those coming from out of town, it's a 10 minute walk from Watford Junction station. Direct trains from Euston take less than 20 minutes. Journeys are charged for zone 8.
15/17 The Parade
Please note that my first and third visits were made anonymously. I met and chatted to Justin on my second visit.
Sadly, ThaT Burger is closing. Its last day of trading is Sunday 6th February. I shall keep my fingers crossed for a London location in the future.