Confessions of a Hamburger Junkie

I’ve written this book many times over the last dozen years or so. In the beginning, I thought of it strictly as a guidebook to all of the hamburgers in Los Angeles, much like a Zagat guide. So I spent the better part of a year writing it, doing the research (and gaining a few pounds doing so), and finally I started putting together the index, and that’s when the trouble started.

By the time I got around to writing down addresses and hours and phone numbers and such, I found out that quite a few places had already gone out of business since I started writing the book. I’m sure most of you have heard how hard it is to run a restaurant (I know, I’ve done it twice), that most fail within the first year, and even more within the first five. So I went back, edited, made a few more phone calls, checked the Internet, and then the next thing you know, I had a whole new batch of leads, a bunch of new burgers to try. It seemed, for a while, that it was never going to end.

Then I thought of starting a website, something that could be updated regularly. I could talk about the latest finds, the unfortunate closures, and all of the emerging trends. I could have people e-mail me with recommendations, and even have an online forum where people could talk about their favorites without me having to sort through and validate their choices. But then I thought of my favorite restaurant guides, such as Zagat, and one of my favorites, a series of books written by a guy in the early 90s who called himself The Itinerate Diner. The great thing about those books was that they fit into the glove compartment of your car. If you drove past a place that looked interesting, you could look it up. If you were out and about and couldn’t think of a good place to eat off the top of your head, you’d open up the glove box. (I do realize, however, that a lot of people these days never go anywhere without their laptop.)

So I stuck with putting this all in print. But that didn’t solve the problem of some of my recommendations vanishing overnight. So I started thinking about the truly great burgers, the ones that stood the test of time. I thought of The Apple Pan, the oldest burger joint in Los Angeles, which opened in 1927. I thought of Russell’s, which opened in 1930. I thought of Cassell’s, which started in the late 40s. I thought of Pie N’ Burger and Tommy’s and In-N-Out and a dozen other great places where they’ve been serving burgers since long before I was born. And I knew that I should be concentrating on these places, the ones that aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Sure, there are new places worth mentioning, such as Tyler’s in Palm Springs, and The Counter in Santa Monica, both of which are fairly new establishments, and have lines going out the door. I feel confident that these two spots will also be around for a long time to come. But for every one of these success stories, there’s a place which slipped by without getting the notice they deserved (Paris’s Grandburger in Pasadena, for instance), or switched ownership and went steadily downhill (Sunset Grill in Hollywood), or simply burned to the ground (Don’s Place in Burbank, or the original Meatty Meat Burger, in West LA). And, once in a while, even one of the greats, a pioneer, a place that’s been around forever, closes its doors for good (Hamburger Henry’s in Long Beach). In other words, you have to be careful about whom you champion.

I also strayed away from the idea of doing a mere guide book. I wanted to put more of me into it. It’s not that I’m such a fabulous human being that I have to tell the world about it, it’s just that I have an interesting story about a fabulous human being who spent a big chunk of his life looking for the perfect burger. He went all over the country, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Arizona to Tennessee to Colorado to Texas to Florida, and all points in between, but he eventually came back home to Southern California, and one of the reasons was because Los Angeles absolutely, positively has the best burgers in the world.