I don't usually review hamburger chains. In fact, in 30-some years of reviewing restaurants I don't think I've ever reviewed a hamburger chain.
But Five Guys intrigued me. First of all, the almost local, Alexandria, Va.-based chain has gotten lots of positive press; and it's made a major move into Maryland, with eight places open and many more coming -- all in the past three years. Two particularly high profile locations were planned: the Inner Harbor and the spot on North Charles Street where Nouveau, the home furnishings store, used to be. (It turns out that the Nouveau location isn't going to happen, but the Harborplace Five Guys is up and running.)
What makes Five Guys worth reviewing, I found, is that it's as close to home cooking as you'll ever get at a hamburger chain. And I like the fact that it does well by not doing much.
How so? Well, Five Guys started 18 years ago as a mom-and-pop operation. The Five Guys are the five sons of the original owners, Janie and Jerry Murrell. From the beginning the couple kept things simple.
"We just wanted a good hamburger," Janie Murrell told me. "We've had various requests to add to the menu, but we've held out. We stick with what we do."
They do a bit more than a hamburger, but not much. You can get a hot dog, or a veggie or a grilled cheese sandwich. Those last two are really just a hamburger with fixings, hold the meat. There are fries and soda pop, but no milkshakes, chicken sandwiches or breakfast biscuits. No desserts. The drinks come in one size with free refills.
Oh, yes. There are peanuts to eat while you wait for your order. You can throw the shells on the floor. You need something to munch on because your food will be cooked to order.
But back to the sort-of home cooking. The burgers are made from fresh, not frozen, meat. The Murrells have the buns baked daily for the franchises and ship them out by UPS or FedEx. The hot dogs are Hebrew National, and you can tell the difference between them and lesser fast-food dogs.
One of my favorite things here is that there is a hamburger, and then there is a little hamburger (which is the size I like, about 4 ounces). "Little" is one of those words I thought had disappeared from consumer vocabulary; most things come in regular, large and jumbo. The regular hamburger is simply two patties stacked on top of each other. Have it with American cheese melting seductively into the nooks and crannies of the burger and with crisp bacon, and you've got yourself a meal.
And yet I'd probably go with the dog because Five Guys splits and grills them the way my mom used to. The hot dogs, too, benefit from melted cheese and bacon, which is how my friend ordered hers. But when she unwrapped the paper it came in, a look of distress passed over her face.
Before she could say anything, Cheryl Smalls, the sharp-eyed co-owner of the Harborplace franchise, swooped down on our table.
"Is everything OK?" she asked.
My friend explained she had ordered bacon and cheese on her hot dog. Not -- horrors -- sauteed mushrooms and onions. The offending dog was whisked away and soon another, with bacon and cheese, arrived. Not bad service when you're supposed to pick up your order at the counter and bring it to a table yourself.
Five Guys' french fries are the boardwalk type, all tangled and wedged in Styrofoam cups. I prefer the thin, crisp ones myself, but I realize that in Maryland I'm in the minority. You can get them as is or with Cajun seasoning. Pick up a bottle of malt vinegar for the table when you get your order -- the only way to eat this kind of fry, to my mind.
And that's it. That's dinner.
No, not quite. Five Guys doesn't complicate things by making the grilled cheese sandwiches on bread. The cooks just turn a bun inside out, put American cheese between the two inverted halves and grill it that way. Add sauteed mushrooms, peppers and onions and some mayonnaise, and you've got yourself a nice, goopy veggie sandwich.
The Harborplace Five Guys is decorated in red and white tile, the franchise color scheme. The noise level is deafening -- OK, cheerful -- as boisterous customers (we were eating with a troop of Boy Scouts) compete with the rock 'n' roll on the sound system. And there are even more people, if possible, working at a frantic pace behind the counter than there are customers.
You can tell co-owner Smalls wants to keep the place spotlessly clean and doesn't really like the idea of messing up her nice new floor with peanut shells, even though they are a Five Guys signature. She's provided each table with a miniature red bucket labeled "peanuts only."
Dinner for four, by the way, set us back $31.
Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: ** (2 stars)
Where: Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *