Sometimes you walk into a restaurant and immediately know that everything is going to be alright. There is something about the decor maybe, or the staff, or the smells, or the general vibe that instantly ticks all the boxes and makes you feel reassured that this place is everything that you have been looking for. It is very rare for somewhere to have this effect on the diner, sometimes it is the sheer unexpectedness or unappealing looks of a place that then serves killer food that make a particular restaurant somewhere special and worth seeking out, but I have to say that Atomic Burger had me smiling and happy from the moment I walked in and that feeling has remained with me pretty much ever since.
I first encountered this remarkable mini-chain (they have a branch in Bristol and a pizza place nearby) a couple of years ago when my wife was working in Oxford and I had come to stay with her for a couple of days. I spent my teenage years in the city and have many fond memories of its pubs and majestic medieval beauty, gigs, and parties, but I never really saw it as somewhere to eat out. To be fair, we didn’t really want to spend our precious pennies on food when there was beer to be had but Oxford never really felt like somewhere for exciting gastronomic adventures. I’d read about Atomic Burger in the Hardens food guide and, as I was aiming to visit the tiny cinema (The Ultimate Picture Palace) nearby, I thought I’d check it out. The Cowley road was always a bit of a rough affair when I was growing up but I’d played and seen many gigs in the pubs and venues that were scattered up and down it and was feeling nostalgic.
And surely the area must have been cleaned up a little bit since 1999.
When I walked in my jaw nearly hit the floor. I had never in my whole life seen anything like it. For anyone born and brought up in the 80’s, it was a dream come true. It was like a realisation of the toy section from the Argos catalogue in 1987. It was like the bedroom you wished you had when you were a kid. It was wonderful. Hanging from the ceiling and stuck to the walls were all the toys and actions figures that I pined after as a child – figures from Star Wars, Boglins, My Pet Monster, Thundercats – you name it, it’s probably on their wall. There was a huge TV screen playing cartoons at the back of the room, there was a warmth, a glow, a joy that radiated from the place. A relaxed and friendly waiter showed me to a table (I just about managed to stammer a ‘hello’ so completely bowled over was I by the decor) and I looked at the colourful and intriguing menu. Normally I would shy away from a burger place that has a vast selection of toppings – it’s often a way of hiding the fact that they don’t really do anything well – but there was something about the Atomic menu that felt different. Each burger has a film or pop culture name or theme – The Tony Montana, The Daisy Duke, The Jake n Elwood – and each is customisable to the point of, well, as far as you want to take it. What makes it even more interesting is the option of having any burger as either beef, chicken, or veggie, thus allowing for everyone to dive in and enjoy the fun (gluten free buns are available too). All the toppings are fantastic – the pulled pork, the crispy onions, the dressing, the hot sauces (although be warned that the Atomic Fallout Sauce is lethal), and everything is made with love and passion and that joy that permeates the building.
On that first visit though, I went down a slightly different route and ordered a hot dog. Plain and simple. Each main comes with a free side and of these, the chilli-rubbed ‘sci-fries’ spoke to me, as did a starter of BBQ wings. And a beer. Obviously. My order was taken and I sat back and felt very happy indeed.
When the wings came I was, well, more than a bit surprised. I have eaten many a chicken wing starter in my time and was expecting maybe 4 or 5 wings to come my way. This particular portion consisted of closer to 12, covered in a rich and smoky BBQ sauce, and served with a suitably sized stack of napkins and a side of blue cheese sauce. Heaven. The wings themselves were expertly cooked and the sauce was thumpingly good. I think I inhaled the lot in about 5 minutes. The hot dog was vast – a proper frankfurter that was juicy, slightly smoky, 100% amazing, and also gone in seconds. The chilli-rubbed fries that rustled together enticingly in the bowl were a revelation – hot and deeply savoury, crispy outside with a perfectly cooked fluffy centre. And, like the rest, devoured at an alarming rate. The waiter came to ask how everything was but I’d already finished. I knew I’d found somewhere pretty special and was so excited by it that my wife and I went back the next day for lunch – I had a chicken Daisy Duke (bacon, American cheese, BBQ sauce) and she had a veggie Bandit (Cajun-rubbed pattie, huge onion ring, BBQ sauce, cheddar). They were totally awesome. The burgers were massive but not scarily so – and we staggered out happy and full, unable to manage one of their tempting milkshakes or ice cream desserts.
Since that first encounter I have eaten at the Oxford branch 4 or 5 times – the latest to their newer premises a few doors down from the original and we got the train from London especially to eat there – and the Bristol branch once. Every time I have been filled with joy, nostalgia, and fantastic food. The beef burgers are hefty, juicy, and fantastic. The wings continue to deliver on every level (a large portion is more than enough for two – trust me). The staff continue to be utterly brilliant. I’ve had some of the biggest onion rings known to man, a crunchy exterior with properly cooked onion hiding inside, as well as creamy and delicious slaw, and more of those addictive ‘sci-fries’. The plain fries are pretty epic too I should add. And every month there is a different special burger to tempt you with – The Wicker Man creation last year was truly epic. On my last visit I created my own – the Hans Gruber tribute (look it up if that film reference means nothing to you) which featured crisp dill pickles, BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, tumbleweed onions, and a whole frankfurter crammed atop a mighty beef patty. It was truly amazing.
And I should also add that, unlike every other burger chain or restaurant in the land, Atomic do not use a sweet, enriched brioche bun to contain their vast creations. A simple white roll is all they feel is necessary and I have to say it works completely. Some people may take umbrage with this. Some may wax lyrical about the qualities of an enriched dough that will help keep the whole thing together without dissolving into mush before the burger is finished. Some may say the richness of the bun works with the burger. Some perhaps can’t imagine why you wouldn’t use a brioche bun. Some say they thought the Sun and the Moon were the same thing. People say all sorts of things. I’ve had some delicious burgers – Honest Burger, The Joint, Pattie & Bun to name but three – many of whom opt for a brioche-style bun but I have to be honest and say that the only time I’ve noticed the difference was when I was served a burger in a brioche bun that had clearly been toasted hours earlier and was chewy and unpleasant. Atomic’s traditional rolls more than stand up to the task (and are also pretty damned tasty) of holding an unruly burger in place and surely that is all that matters.
If you’ve got room (and I have never quite managed it) there is a sweeping array of tempting things for dessert – milkshakes, ice cream, waffles – all of which sound fantastic. I saw a Vincent Vega shake (ice cream, bourbon, peanut butter, cream) go past me once and almost sighed at its sheer majesty. One day I’ll do it. One day…
Atomic Burger is a real destination and one well worth seeking out. There are whispers and rumours that they may expand beyond the current sites and if they do we should all rejoice. Their concept (not a word I usually associate with good restaurants) is unique and wonderful and the food more than lives up to the expectation set by the surroundings. There is even awesome Star Wars wallpaper in the toilets. Yes. There is. They are soon (early 2016) unveiling a new menu which I’m sure will be every bit as exciting and epic as the current one and I can’t wait to go back and try it. There is nothing else out there like Atomic and that is worth celebrating and cherishing. If you like burgers, you will love Atomic. It’s that simple.
Check out their website: www.atomicburger.co.uk