The bell rings at 3.15pm, school’s just finished. You run down to the corner store, push aside the plastic octopus legs and ask for a burger. It’s a sloppy wonder of fried egg, beetroot, ground beef and lettuce, and it probably cost you less than $1 because it’s the 1970s. That’s the burger legacy of the Australian milk bar. “That’s what it was always about, a lovely, juicy burger that was always grilled and had a nice crust on it. You'd bite it and the juice would run out on the grease-free pack, you’re kind of licking your hand.” Neil Perry is executive chef at Rockpool Group. When he was a kid in the ’70s, McDonald’s didn’t even exist in Australia. “The only burgers we ate were the local milk-bar burgers. We used to eat them all the time as kids.”
Perry’s latest venture is Burger Project, a fast-food chain pumping out burgers with fine-dining ingredients. Perry’s restaurant is one of the few new-wave burger vendors selling anything reminiscent of the Australian milk-bar burger. It doesn’t sell particularly well, though, at least not in comparison with the American Cheese and the Cheese and Bacon, two distinctly American-style burgers. “We do 5,000 burgers a week, and every week it just comes out the same,” says Perry.
It’s not like that’s an isolated example, either. Have a look at Fatties Burger Appreciation Society (FBAS), a burger review Facebook group with more than 20,000 members, and you’ll see a long parade of soft-bun burgers with American cheese, pickles, mustard and bacon, as well as fried-chicken burgers with Southern ’slaw. You need a lot of patience and determination to dig through the site for a mention of beetroot, fried egg or a sesame roll, let alone the three together.
So what happened? What killed the milk-bar burger and replaced it with American cheeseburgers? Mary’s man Jake Smyth says milk-bar culture was crushed by McDonald’s. “They exploded on the scene in a way that we'll never see hamburgers explode in Australia ever again,” Smyth says. “It doesn't matter how much we talk about Mary’s or Chur Burger, they'll never come close to what Maccas did.” That explains why so many milk bars have closed, but what about the style of burgers they sold?
While beetroot and egg have become rarer, pickles and American cheese have become more common. Mary’s is a good example, Smyth says the Mary’s burger was inspired by all the burgers he had in small bars across America, the Cheeseburger was inspired by his love for the McDonald’s cheeseburger. “The McDonald’s double cheeseburger on a steamed bun is one of the best hamburgers in the world.” Smyth says McDonald’s will forever prompt nostalgia for his childhood. “I used to go out with my family, it was a special treat for me, so many families did. They’re associated with a treat, with good times. We wanted to have something which allowed people to feel like they’re having a really good time.”
While Neil Perry grew up with milk bars and sloppy, grease-proof-paper-wrapped burgers, Smyth and most people his age didn’t: they ate McDonald’s and Hungry Jacks. These days, though, eating at those restaurants can come with a lot of cultural and dietary guilt attached to the idea of fast food. Mary’s, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same damning tag. It uses good-quality beef and serves its burgers out of a dimly lit bar alongside craft beers and a soundtrack reminiscent of the old Sandringham hotel. “There’s a growing culture of people rejecting guilt in general. That's what I stand behind,” Says Smyth. “People don't want to be made to feel guilty about their life choices. I think that's what Mary's represents.”
Neil Perry says the new wave of burgers is part of a wider cultural movement of people wanting casual dining, but with more accountability. “They're not necessarily looking for something that tastes completely different, they're just looking for something that tastes fresher, better and which they probably believe is better for them. They don't want to forego the whole experience and give up burgers. They just want to spend a bit more money to have a better burger experience.”
The idea of guilt-free, cheffed-up McDonald’s is a convincing one, but it’s not necessarily that simple. When we asked the moderators of FBAS why it’s so hard to find a burger with beetroot on it, fast-food nostalgia came up as well, but so did another idea: the cultural cringe. “No one wants to look Australian in Australia, but as soon as you go overseas you're going to be as patriotic as possible,” says moderator Zac Innes. “I bet if we opened up a milk bar in the US we'd have egg, pineapple and beetroot[on our burgers].” One of his friends and fellow FBAS moderator, Brendon Green, says stereotypes of Australian food during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are particularly negative. “The milk bar is part of that.”
With a lot of ex fine-dining chefs moving into fast-food production, maybe in future we’ll see someone like Smyth or Perry open a reimagined milk bar serving burgers with beetroot and egg, but also some decent potato scallops and maybe a craft Chico Roll, too.