Harper’s Burger Bar (website here) is one of three new burger places that opened in Kingston, ON this fall (2010). (See my reviews of Poutine Place and Five Guys (includes a comparison of Harper’s and Five Guys).) It is owned by the same people that run the restaurants, Chien Noir and Atomica. I strongly dislike Chien Noir but I frequent Atomica, so I was curious to see how Harper’s would fare. (If you’d like more details of my experiences at Chien Noir or Atomica, please post a comment and I will gladly share.)
Three weeks after Harper’s opened, I went for lunch on a weekday with two friends to try it. The service was absolutely terrible. I never would have even considered giving this place a second chance, but the owner apologized and comped our meals. So out of appreciation for that, and to be fair to his restaurant (and to take some photos), I gave Harper’s a second chance. I went back one and a half months later on a weekday for lunch in a group of 5. The updated review has been added in italics below.
Harper’s Burger Bar Review (Kingston, ON)
Restaurant info: Harper’s Burger Bar is admirably supporting local producers and sustainable food. Their burgers are made from AAA grade Angus beef that has been raised naturally, sustainably, and locally. Also, they offer a selection of cheeses from local cheese makers. I really like the decor and would describe it as industrial chic. There are exposed brick walls and pipes, and silver painted chairs contrasting warm dark wooden benches and a fun black board wall menu. I really like the details: fantastic industrial lamps, hanging light bulbs, and even an industrial kitchen sink in the ladies’ washroom. Be warned though that the washrooms don’t appear to be heated. The flat screen televisions are a nice touch too, showing the sports and Food Network channels simultaneously.
Menu: The best thing about Harper’s is the selection. They have an excellent selection of beverages (including wine, beer, “girlie” alcoholic drinks, shakes, and a beer float), of buns, of toppings, of dips (including white truffle aioli), and of burgers (vegan [chickpea patty], vegetarian [flash fried panko crusted, 3 cheese stuffed portobello mushroom], turkey, chicken [breast], and, of course, beef). They have a list of 8 set burgers for you to choose from, including the classic, blue, banh-mi, and umami burgers. One of their burgers is even topped with a fried egg (bull’s eye). I particularly liked the sound of the deluxe burger which is topped with brie, avocado, bacon, and rosemary aioli. You could order the 3 slider burgers plate and try three different varieties of toppings in one sitting.
Price: The price of their burgers ranges from $7.50 to $11.50 each before tax. The 3 slider burgers plate is $12.50. Additional toppings range from $1 to $1.50 each. At first glance, this seems reasonable considering the beef is top quality and naturally raised. However, this price does not include a side. A small side of fries or onion rings costs an extra $2 or $3 with burger purchase. Otherwise, fries, sweet potato fries, and onion rings cost $6 to $7. When you factor in tax and tip, this becomes significantly more expensive than the standard burger meal from a restaurant or pub. Although the burger patties are of a good size and thickness, the portion size of the side salad, fries and onion rings is adequate. See below for a review of the quality of the food.
Buns and Toppings: The bun was very very good. It was perhaps the best burger bun I’ve ever had, anywhere. But I would have much preferred a toasted bun. Also, our waitress never asked us what type of bun we wanted. I didn’t realize until it was too late that there were 4 different options. The sliders buns are standard and not soft enough for my taste. In fact, mine were badly burnt.
Their standard cheese is nothing to rave about, but the other toppings are fresh, gourmet, and very good. The second time I went, I ordered the sliders sampler and I ordered the umami, deluxe and delicious. The umami (brie, carmelized onions, white truffle aioli) was good because the caramelized onions were nice. The deluxe was good but pretty standard (monterey jack, bacon, avocado). But the delicious was surprisingly disappointing and bland (onion ring, avocado spread). Of special note, the grilled jalapenos are very good.
Beef burger: In terms of the meat patty, I could tell, from the flavour and texture of the beef burgers, that they had used a higher quality of meat than the average burger place. Personally, I liked how they kept the meat simple by barely seasoning it. This way, you can really taste the subtle, natural flavour of the meat. However, I would have preferred a coarser grind and a higher ratio of fat to protein as the patty was slightly dry. It appears that they’ve used leaner (cheaper) cuts of meat. I would not attribute the dryness to the cooking process, because the middle was still slightly pink. (I was so hungry from the long wait, that I just ate it, risking food poisoning.) So, although the quality of the meat is good, I did not like the burger patty because it was too finely ground and crumbly for my taste. The two people that were with me didn’t think that the burgers were anything to rave about either. For my second visit, I ordered the sliders sampler. The smaller beef patties had a chewier texture that I liked, but they were overly charred. They were so overcooked that the surface was tough and almost leathery. I much prefer President’s Choice Angus sliders – mini Angus beef burgers (frozen from a box). The three other people in our group that ordered the beef burgers agreed that the patties themselves were bland and nothing special.
Photo below: Sliders sampler (beef) with umami, deluxe, and delicious. Also shown, the onion rings and white truffle aioli.
Vegan burger: The vegan burgers are made with chickpea patties. I must admit that this was likely the first vegan burger that I’ve ever had, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. Having said that, I didn’t like it. Texturally, it was mushy and too soft aside from the embedded whole chickpeas. Also, it was very bland. On a positive note, it tasted freshly made (not from frozen), but I didn’t confirm this. During our second visit, our vegan friend tried this burger and agreed that it was too soft in texture and too bland.
Photo below: Vegan burger with grilled jalapenos. Also shown, the potato fries.
Sides: Although the fries were thin cut, they were not crispy. In fact, they were limp and soggy. (This was likely due to the kitchen staff hanging the fries in the deep fryer baskets above the hot oil for a period of time before deep frying them. A mistake commonly made by fast food places.) Their onion rings, however, were good and very crispy. I tried their sweet potato fries and white truffle aioli. Although the sweet potato fries were not as limp as the potato fries from my first visit, they were bland, lacking in natural sweetness, and not crispy enough. Also, the white truffle aioli was disappointing. I could not smell or taste the white truffle oil and it needed more garlic. (I have a small bottle of white truffle oil in my pantry that has been waiting for inspiration. When I try making white truffle aioli myself, I will post the recipe.)
See the sweet potato fries in the photo below and the regular fries and onion rings in the two photos above.
Service: Having good service in a restaurant is just as important as having good food (in my opinion). Since the burgers are on the pricey side and since they’re only decently good, the service needs to be flawless. Unfortunately, the service that we experienced at Harper’s Burger Bar was awful. We had to speak to 2 servers before our waitress finally came to take our order. She explained that someone else was actually supposed to be taking care of us. Clearly, there was confusion among the staff about their table assignments. Then, it took the kitchen 45 minutes to make our burgers. Needless to say, we were late getting back to work. Considering the restaurant was full, I would have forgiven them for the delay, except for the fact that 2 of our 3 orders had mistakes. I ordered a burger and onion rings. I received fries instead of the onion rings. That wasn’t a big deal. But my friend ordered the deluxe beef burger and sweet potato fries, and received a vegan burger with a caesar salad. I suggested that they might have been meant for another table, but our waitress insisted they were ours. She informed us that the kitchen would make our corrections immediately. But it took another 20 minutes before we received the deluxe burger and onion rings which we had to box up. When the owner realized that there had been a problem and a long wait, he apologized and waived the charge of our meals. To be fair to Harper’s, I gave them another chance one and a half months later. The service and efficiency had improved significantly from the first time. However, we still had to wait 23 minutes to receive our meals, making us late returning to work.
Overall: Now that I have been to Harper’s Burger Bar twice, I will conclude that I love the ambiance, the drinks menu, and the televisions that show sports and The Food Network simultaneously. I do not like the burger patties as they are dry and standard, nor do I like their sides. However, the buns and toppings are good enough that they make for good burgers overall. Basically, I think that the food is highly overrated and moderately overpriced.