I love Annie’s Burger Shack in Nottingham. In a city that has a few too many fast food outlets, chain restaurants and poorly executed formula establishments, it has always stood out as a beacon of independence.
Annie came over to Nottingham from the United States back in 1994 and started her first Annie’s Burger Shack back in 2009 in a pub called the Navigation Inn, on Wilford Street, across the canal from the HMRC offices. She basically ran it as a sort of concession, using the kitchen at the pub to cook up some authentic US-style burgers, inspired by Rock ‘n Roll and her native country. We went there with some friends, not long after she had started. The pub itself was nothing to write home about, a standard Nottingham pub that was known for regularly having good live music. They had a great selection of beers, a lot of them Real Ales and hand-pulled from small breweries. Remember, this was at the beginning of the whole Real Ale revival and the selection was great. This came in very handy, as Annie was cooking burgers for about 50 people at a time on what must have been no more than a 4 burner stove, cranking them out as fast as she could, but still very slow.
We were there on a schoolnight, but it still took more than 45 minutes to get a table. At this point you’re getting a little annoyed (“this better be good”) whilst secretly hoping “this must be good, if they are this busy on a Thursday night” in equal measures, adding to the anticipation. We ordered from the large menu where you choose a burger based (vegetarian and vegan are catered for, exemplary) on the combinations that Annie had come up with (the “Lemmy” with JD-sauce or the “Fajita Burger” with jalapenos and guacamole for example), after which you choose your kind of chips and possibly a side of coleslaw. As I said, a good thing the beer was so good, because it took another hour to get our burgers to the table.
Luckily, we were proven right in our eager anticipation because the burgers were amazing, the best I’d had in Nottingham, possibly even the UK! They were juicy, the bun was not dry but not soggy either, the sauces and garnishes were spot on!
In 2014, because of Annie’s success in the Navigation Inn and the fact that she couldn’t accommodate all these people, she was able to move to a property of her own; the amazing premises she still occupies on the corner of Broadway in the Lace market. Here, she was able to occupy a proper kitchen with a proper brigade to assist her and good waiting staff who struck the right balance between friendliness and professionalism (and tattoos, piercings and facial hair).
Most importantly, she was a Free House; she could still continue serving all these great Real Ales from a lot of small, independent breweries like before. The burgers were great and the place was a roaring success. She had succeeded in becoming a Nottingham icon.
I have been a couple of times since then (about once a year) in which time she has also opened up a bar downstairs. This area is a watering hole in its own rights, serving the same great quality beers as upstairs and it also functions as a waiting area for those who can’t get a table right away. Booking a table used to be tricky, whereby they take reservations for half of the restaurant and leave the other half available for passing trade, a system that generally works really well.
Unfortunately, in my visits over the years I have noticed that the place seems to have become almost complacent when it comes to the burgers; the menu still features the same quirky combinations and interesting recipes (the Reuben, a burger with sauerkraut, pastrami and rye bread for example), as well as regularly changing specials, but the food itself lacks the spark it had in the beginning. The burgers, as well as the buns, have become drier, meaning that the bun often breaks up in your hand as you are trying to eat it and end up holding the patty and garnish between your fingers, while your bun drops onto your plate in two halves. The garnishes are still OK, but nothing more, there is no zing to them. The prices are still good where 2 burgers and drinks will cost you less £30, but they don’t make up for diminished afterglow I experienced.
Luckily, the beer is still very good, but can’t make up for the anxiety I feel when I look at this place. Has Annie become a victim of her own success? Has she started to believe the hype a little too much? Or, even worse, is she gearing up to open another place with the same formula, becoming a chain restaurant?
Please Annie, tell me this is not the case and that I’m wrong, tell me that you haven’t lost the passion for cooking us great hamburgers here in Nottingham. I know these things might be seen as inevitable (why exactly?) but I miss the passion you and your crew showed. Waiting for almost 2 hours for a great burger is so much more preferable than being sat down, ordered and served within 20 minutes with a mediocre burger. Maybe your everyday customer will want speed (and maybe you’ll want most of them out the door quickly as well…) which will bring you turnover, but speed isn’t everything.At the speed you are turning out the burgers it is hard to get a second or even a third pint in. This isn’t authentic Rhode Island anymore, it is turning into a burger factory. Please tell me you are not thinking about expanding and opening other restaurants with the same formula, turning this Nottingham icon into yet another form of gourmet burger restaurant.