Before I ate at Romer’s Burger Bar, I equated a tantalizing burger with something sloppy—something that oozed cheese, sauce, and tomato slices out the bottom, and tasted primarily of pickle. The Rodeo Star burger at Romer’s was my education, and at $11, the cheapest tuition I’ve ever paid.
I was worried when it arrived at the table. The burger was plus-sized, but there appeared to be only about a tablespoon of barbecue sauce on the meat. And cilantro? On a bacon burger? What kind of hipster swindle was this?
But then I had a bite. And I got it. It was heartbreakingly beautiful, like Jodie Foster’s first glimpse of Earth from space in the film Contact. I could taste the sauce’s ancho chilies, coffee, cumin, and cinnamon. It was distinct from the earthy Heritage Farms natural beef patty, and the salty applewood-smoked bacon, and the brioche bun, toasted with clarified butter to bring out the freshness of the bread.
Like the burger, nearly everything about my Romer’s experience surprised, in a good way. That’s thanks to the man behind the name, Jim Romer. He is—also surprisingly—a former executive chef at Milestones. Along with former Milestoners Scott Ward and Erin Holm (wife of Milestones founder Wayne Holm), he opened Romer’s in May.
“It’s the most fun,” Romer told the Georgia Straight in a later phone interview. “We started Milestones on 4th Avenue, and 20 years later we’re starting something new here.”
You wouldn’t know that this place was anything different at first glance. Dark little expensive hipster food spots line West 4th like bong and bead stores did in the good old days. When you peer into the old Pinky’s Steakhouse spot, Romer’s is dark, and the music is loud.
But once seated you can both see and hear your dining companions, thanks to good design. The room is staffed with servers who manage to be both attentive and attractive—a rare combination. On the main level, there’s a choice of comfy booths or high tables. Downstairs, the Vault is a shimmery private party room for up to 25 people that features several flat-screen TVs.
Growing up in California, Romer said he started his food career working in his father’s health-care catering business (“Yes, I’ve cooked in a hospital”). After completing the hospitality program at San Francisco’s City College, he worked his way up in kitchens from Carmel to the Napa Valley. In 1990, he was recruited by Wayne Holm, so he worked with the chain as it was just getting going. Milestones was bought by Ontario restaurant conglomerate Cara in 2002. After a stint as executive chef for the Kelsey’s chain, also owned by Cara, he started work on Romer’s.
Romer’s burger concept is something new. The prices alone are a revelation. Burgers, which are served solo, cost $9 to $12 each, with the exception of the Ultimate Kobe Classic at $20. Fries, which are big enough for sharing, run from $4 for a basic order to $8 for real poutine with very squeaky cheese. Beers start at $4, the large selection of nonalcoholic beverages are all priced under $5, and desserts top out at $6.
“People look at it [the menu] and say, ”˜How do you do that?’?” Romer related, noting that burgers on many chain restaurant menus have sneaked up to $15 or $16 with fries. “Our concept is that guests will create their own experience. They can set their own price point.”
That’s true, but the temptation is to sample and spend. For appies, Romer re-marinates big pickles in chilies and garlic, and big, meaty green olives direct from Italy in parsley and more garlic. They’re served together on a platter with hot mixed nuts for $7. The free-run “messy” chicken wings were a crispy highlight, dripping with hot sauce and a generous bath of warm Gorgonzola cream for $10. My dining companion had the $12 Righteous Rib Burger, which he deemed “the best burger in Vancouver”. The boneless short ribs on top were so tender, they flopped on the patty like a duvet. And the whole thing was drenched in decadent Gorgonzola sauce.
The strawberry-rhubarb pie, brought in raw from Langley’s Krause Berry Farms and baked in-house, was woody and flavourless. But the Drunken Doughnuts were magnificent. Ten mini doughnuts, served hot right out of the fryer and doused in icing sugar, are served with three boozy dipping sauces: Kahlua and Nutella, limoncello, and maple whisky. I like dessert, but these were so rich and greasy that I was happy with just two.
Romer said he and his partners plan to open more Romer’s locations. On the one hand, East Van could really use a Romer’s. On the other, there’s something lovely about this place as a one-off. Enjoy it while it lasts—it’s sure to grow.