There are very few things that the Roman Empire has – and perhaps should have – in common with American fast food. Or the Persian Empire, or the Ottoman Empire. According to a cursory Google, the only famous empire to have been documented eating the precursor to the hamburger, a patty of minced horse or camel that would be tucked under the saddle for lunch on the road, was Genghis Khan and his marauding Mongols. And we know how well it ended for them.
Sadly, it’s also virtually the only famous empire that doesn’t make the menu at The Empire of Burger & Steak. Maybe because horse has strangely fallen out of fashion since about 2013?
The restaurant at the top of Gloucester Road joins an already sloppy and saturated market of Bristol burger joints, though, granted, none has a theme quite like this.
The menu lists burgers by corresponding empire, making ordering somewhere between a xenophobic punchline and a coded list of illicit substances (“Two Persians and a China, please luv”).
Aside from this, the menu is fairly unremarkable. A page of burgers (from £10) is followed by a page of steak options, from £14.95 for an eight-ounce rump.
The aforementioned empires dictate the additions to the burgers. Each starts with a basic patty (your choice of beef, lamb, chicken, pork or vegetarian), bun and chips, to which all manor of weird and wonderful ingredients are added, from egg, bacon, lettuce and ketchup (British Empire) to gherkins and tzaziki (Greek Empire).
The Roman Empire seemed like as good a choice as any, offering mozzarella cheese, fried onion and pancetta (£10.50) on top of a beef patty. What Mary Beard would have to say about historical accuracy is probably unprintable.
An extremely attentive member of staff took my order and chef fired up the burners, just like the Romans did, giving me a little time to absorb my settings. The restaurant was spacious and bright with a glass frontage, though when the mandolin version of My Heart Will Go On glided to a finish and the Spotify advert came on, the traffic noise from the busy road outside blew in through the open door.
A few pedestrians passed and perused the menu. Cchoice is fairly limited this far up Gloucester Road and new openings are exciting.
As the takeaway opposite opened the shutters for Friday evening business, a young family entered. The older girl begged mum to let her sit in one of the orange winged armchairs in the window, incongruous with the high-backed solid wooden dining chairs and Eames-inspired numbers with lovely curves.
The only garishness was a big yellow neon crown mounted above the bar, and a wall covered with carefully chosen, randomly-punctuated motivational gift shop signs: ‘Do more of what makes you happy!’ and ‘There are no mistakes only lessons’.
The food arrived rapidly and piping hot. The fat, greasy chip shop chips weren’t seasoned at all, and I got more salt on the table than the food as it bounced off the glass plate, leaving a little gritty coating on the table, as if eating on a sandy beach.
The Roman Empire burger was big and stuffed with the promised ingredients. The pancetta was limp but tasty, while the mozzarella had melted over the patty and begun to congeal as I got through a mountain of onion to reach it.
The bottom bun had long ago given up the ghost under the wetness of a sliced beef tomato, turning it back to the dough from whence it came.
The onion rings were hot and crisp and came accompanied by a blob of an unusually floury potato salad with chilli flakes on top. I tried to skewer a chip and it skidded on the glass plate and landed in my lap with an unfortunate greasy smear.
The friendly woman behind the bar took away my mostly-eaten dinner as I necked some water in a futile attempt to lower my body’s salt content. I could almost hear the undertaker next-door-but-one rubbing his hands.
Julius Caesar wouldn’t have stood for this. Lord knows he loved a salad.
Another motivational sign on the wall caught my eye as I paid the bill: ‘Dinner choices: 1. Take it 2. Leave it’. For the good of my health, perhaps dinner at The Empire of Burger & Steak should remain a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
But hey, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Or blotted out by an invading army, mistaking you for a barbarian. Just be sure to let these guys know so they can update the menu.
The Empire of Burger & Steak, 379b Gloucester Road, Bristol, BS7 8TN
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