EDIT: Since writing this post I have revisited 7Bone – a more recent review can be found here.
Whilst in my parents house, I am often the object of much teasing for being a Londonphile. It is true that since moving to the capital nearly ten years ago, I have come to appreciate its superiority in a number of areas – public transport, cultural life, fashion, parks and open spaces and, thankfully, the food. I am firm in my belief that London has the best, the most diverse the most innovative food in the UK, possibly even in the world – where else can you find three-Michelin star restaurants next to all-night street food events combining our national love of gourmet fast food and loud music? – however, it is not so firm that I share the view of many of my fellow capital-dwellers that you can’t get decent food outside of London. Manchester, in my view, has an excellent food scene. Abergavenny Food Festival is as fine as any and, after conquering the legendary Lockjaw burger at Bristol’s Grillstock, I have a renewed faith in the offerings of the Westcountry. Southampton, however, despite being my beloved birthplace, does not have the kind of food culture that inspires people to get out and eat – which is a shame. Chain restaurants, not unexpectedly, dominate the high street and many of the independent restaurants are reservation-only. There is a complete lack of street food and an attempt at creativity often leads to some confused ideas – Caribbean roast dinners and Thai ‘tapas’ (I rather like the Thai food at this particular restaurant, the soft shell crab is outstanding – I just wish they wouldn’t call it ‘tapas’). There are, of course, some hidden gems, but there is also the terrifying The Food Factory, ‘Southampton’s First Multi-Cuisine Restaurant’, which makes me want to retreat back up the M3 as quickly as possible. I find myself craving something a little more inspiring, left-field or on trend and, finally, this is starting to happen.
About six months ago, I received an email from a friend informing me that there was a pub called The Rockstone in the Bevois Valley area of Southampton selling some excellent, and rather enormous, burgers. Apparently the place was a roaring success and I simply had to go, they said. I had scarcely finished texting my best friend to invite her to lunch there when she emailed me informing me of the very same place. Then, only last weekend, on an impromptu visit to Southampton, I was informed of the new and eagerly-anticipated 7Bone, Portswood’s first dive-bar-cum-burger bar. Two hyped-up burger joints on one strip of road? Were things finally beginning to change?
The Rockstone, Bevois Valley
The Rockstone, housed in a pub previously known as The Bevois Castle that I vaguely remember from one infamous Bevois Valley pub crawl on which I consumed little more than house double vodka and tonics and copious Marlboro Lights, claims to have the best burgers in Southampton and has featured on MSN’s list of the “21 Best Burger Places” – an accolade to which they are extremely proud. A swift glance at their TripAdvisor page showed a stream of excellent reviews – both of the food and atmosphere. Had gourmet fast food finally reached my hometown?
The quick answer was: no, not exactly. Although the darkened room / drinks in jam jars / neon signs / ironic cocktails clichés of burger bars are the cause of many an eye roll, The Rockstone was so far removed from this that I thought I had walked into the wrong pub. Burgundy patterned carpets, mahogany tables and chairs and faux ivy draped around the corkboards – you can see why they style themselves as a ‘country pub in the city’, but this is more like a country pub in the city…. ten years ago. Despite this, the music (probably from around ten years ago) was excellent and the staff incredibly friendly and helpful.
The Rockstone has a jaw-droppingly extensive menu with 17 burger options and a number of ‘light bites’ and main courses. Most of the burgers are priced at £12.50 and served with fries and salad, and there is a £2 surcharge for sweet potato fries or ‘chunky fat chips’. The menu states that the patties weigh in at 12-14oz uncooked and are cooked medium-rare as standard, but can be served rare or ‘cremated’ on request. These burgers are more expensive than many of the better London burgers which, although hardly surprising given their size, still makes for quite a pricey lunch. After seeing a few burgers leave the kitchen, I abandoned all thoughts about getting creative with the toppings and instead opted for a classic cheese and bacon burger.
The gargantuan patties make for a burger so enormous that, unless your party trick is putting a pint glass or your entire fist in your mouth, it is unlikely that you will be able to take a bite. I even attempted to eat mine after cutting it in half and instead gave up and went with the knife and fork approach. I managed to eat half – quite an achievement, I feel – and spent the following ten minutes, defeated, huffing and puffing and idly picking at the fries. The actual burger itself was rather good – well seasoned and well cooked, with a good amount of pinkness in the middle as promised. The bacon was crisp and there was a decent amount of cheese. I would have loved to have seen a different bun on the burger – possibly brioche – as the bread is crumbly and looks a bit anaemic and unappetising. The veggie burger that my friend ordered was also well-seasoned and well-cooked and the accompanying salad was dressed well. I felt a little sad that I was not able to finish my burger and, although I understand that the go-large-or-go-home approach is part of the charm of The Rockstone, I couldn’t help but wish that there were sliders on the menu so that I could taste a few different varieties and not feel that I needed to be rolled to the nearest taxi rank.
Honestly, this is the biggest burger I have ever eaten and if quantity is your thing, you could in no way be disappointed here. It’s not gourmet, but it is good.
On first glance, 7Bone’s online menu is very impressive – a small range of well-thought out burgers, a handful of sides, Sipsmith gin and vodka and Kernel beer – and all very reasonably priced. It was created by two guys who obviously know their stuff and have a passion for good-quality meat. Judging by the current hype around burgers in London and the various queues I have stood in to get one (Patty & Bun, I’m looking at you), and the fact that it was opening weekend, I anticipated a bit of a wait before eating, so was very surprised when we were seated, almost immediately, at a table for four.
7Bone is not quite, as it claims, a ‘dive bar’ when compared to similar establishments with the same name – it is a little too clean, has too many windows and too few unsavoury characters, although this may change over time – however the decor is interesting, with the stripped bare walls and neon signs you would expect to see in a burger bar. Above the bar is a sign coaxing burger lovers to order here (politely) – serving to both raise a smile and remind you that you are not in a dive bar, so no need to shout or throw your glass. There are a number of things I particularly liked – utalitarian kitchen rolls on the tables (napkins are always insufficient with burgers), there was enough space between the tables and the staff were happy and enthusiastic.
The burgers on offer at 7Bone are exactly the kind that I like – a little sloppy, covered in sauce, housed in a brioche-style bun and with a pickle (there is never an excuse not to have a pickle – I actually lose respect for people who pick them out). I opted, once again for the cheese and bacon burger, amusingly named Prince Charles is Overrated and a bargain at £6.50, a side of chilli cheese fries and a large gin and tonic. There was absolutely no point in practicing restraint – heck, I even promised myself a further order of the IPA onion straws later on in the meal if I thought I could manage it. My companions ordered a buttermilk fried chicken burger and a chilli cheeseburger named ‘Peter Green’ (not quite sure why).
When our waitress put down my portion of chilli cheese fries I, almost involuntarily, wailed “where are the jalapenos?” I could see all of the usual ingredients: fries – check, beef chilli – check, cheese – check…. but no jalapenos. One of the reasons I love the chilli cheese fries at MEATLiqour is the scattering of spicy jalapenos. The richness of meat, cheese and potato definitely needs something more to cut through it. This might just be my personal taste, but those fries need to be a lot more spicy! My companion felt that the chilli cheeseburger could also benefit from a few jalapenos. The burger itself was very good, if a tiny bit overcooked for my taste, the beef patty was among the tastiest I have had and very well-seasoned, the bacon was crisp and sweet, the mush of cheese and ‘dirty sauce’ (basically a paprika-spiked mayo) was delicious and they were not stingy with the pickles (hurrah!). Best of all, it had a decent bun, which is the least you can really hope for with a burger. In the end I decided against the IPA onion straws as I was fuller than expected, but fully intend to get some next time.
You can forgive a few tiny hitches during opening week and it looks as though 7Bone have got the fundamentals of a decent burger joint right – a few jalapenos here, a little less cooking on the patties there and this could be close to perfection. Kudos on the drinks menu, there are some great choices there, but what I would really, really like to see is a few cocktails to showcase the spirits on offer. And did I mention more jalapenos?
With the trend for gourmet burgers reaching even higher levels in 2013 in London, it was inevitable that this would filter out to the rest of the country. I am very happy to have two such dining options on offer when I return to Southampton, particularly as 7-one offers the ‘no reservations’ policy – refreshing in a town where the first thing you are asked on entering a restaurant is “have you booked?” The Rockstone, already established in the local community, has a dedicated and cult following which will ensure a booming business for years to come, and I anticipate that 7Bone will be no less successful, however it seems that although both have the potential to turn a good burger into an excellent burger, I can’t help but think that it would be beneficial to get up to London and see what the big daddies of the burger joints – Elliot’s / MEATliquor / Patty & Bun / Motherflipper – are doing right now. If I had to choose between them, 7Bone would be my out-and-out winner: great atmosphere, excellent drink choices and the type of burger I really like: rare, sloppy and delicious.