12601 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City CA 91604 (map); 818-761-8300; carneytrain.com
Other location: 8351 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood CA 90069 (map); 323-654-8300
Cooking Method: Griddled or flame broiled
Short Order: A Hollywood landmark misses the mark with its burgers and fries
Want Fries with That? They'll cost you an extra $1.60 and I'd pass
Price: Double cheeseburger w/o chili: $3.95; w/chili: $4.60; 1/2-pound cheeseburger: $5.10
Notes: Studio City: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. West Hollywood: Sun. to Thurs., 11 a.m to 12 a.m.; Fri. to Sat., 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
It won't be news to any of you that Los Angeles is a culture of cars. What isn't always as obvious are the symptoms of the sickness attendant to seeing the world through your windshield. I can remember walking the streets when I first moved here and feeling as though none of the signage was designed for me. It wasn't until I began navigating the sprawl in my aging Mitsubishi that I realized that a world passing by at forty miles per hour demands a visual language that is enlarged and elevated. The signs get bigger, taller, and more attention grabbing. You can find doughnut shops with twenty-foot representations of the fried treat adorning the roof. Fast food signs climbing forty feet into the air. You can even spot gigantic hands holding a car above Ventura Boulevard signaling the carwash below. To be fair, the last iteration went through a city ordinance battle that resulted in the loss of twenty feet of height (or a giant forearm).
It makes sense. Or should I say, there is perverse logic to it. Things go by too quickly from your car to simply rely on the normal business (sign) model. Customers need time to brake when they spot an oversized representation of their heart's (or belly's) desire. It's this logic—and a Hollywood-sized love of spectacle—that has turned many restaurants in Los Angeles into replicas of something else. We've seen landmark eateries that were constructed to look like (brown derby) hats and diners shaped like bulldogs. While these examples, like so many of their kind, have become museum pieces, there is a restaurant that carries the torch of this tradition.
The Burger Train
Carney's first opened its doors in 1968. John Wolfe Sr., a local radio executive, decided to build his burger joint from two aging Union Pacific rail cars. Carney's quickly became a landmark on the Sunset Strip. The menu offers little more than the standard carhop, although burgers and dogs have been joined more recently by soft tacos. It's easy to see why people were drawn to the place: The rail cars are truly beautiful and the effect of having them perched along a commercial strip is...well, spectacular. While I'll come for the spectacle now and then, I am always more interested in staying for the food.
At lunch time on Monday I felt ready for the burger-in-train-car experience, so I headed to the Studio City outpost of Carney's. Certainly the original West Hollywood location is the place to get the full effect of the aesthetic, but I was going for the food. Well, that and the traffic on the Sunset Strip is maddening. Don't worry; as you can see, the Valley location is also built from those train cars so the setting is just as satisfying.
A Suspicious Absence of Seasoning
As is my habit when confronted with multiple burger options, I take the guess-work out of ordering and try all of them. In this case, I started with two double cheeseburgers: one with everything, one with everything and chili. (Yes, I too didn't realize chili occupied a culinary space outside of 'everything.') The service was fast and friendly in the way that makes you feel like these folks have worked at their jobs a while. This normally puts me at ease, yet watching the griddle work initiated suspicions. While the kitchen is pleasingly all stainless steel, the meat came out pre-formed and on paper. This in and of itself isn't a deal-breaker—I've loved a pre-formed burger before —but what happened next was disturbing. Actually, I should say, what didn't happen next was disturbing. The meat went down and was cooked without any seasoning. Nary a shake of salt.
When the burgers came to me in a cardboard box alongside my fries, everything looked to be in order, so I shook off my unease and dived in. The double cheese with everything comes with mayo, ketchup, and mustard along with a healthy slice of tomato and chopped lettuce, onions, and pickles. All of the components were there, but the burger just didn't come together. There wasn't the gentle, familiar concert of fat and salt and starch combining to make for that initial rush of pleasure that arrives from a bite of even a mediocre burger. I was nonplussed. It was like my burger had been abducted by aliens and replaced by something that—while looking the same—just didn't taste right.
I turned to the chiliburger for hope. While sloppier and full of that chili spice, there was still a disappointing blandness to it. The Carney's chili is much vaunted, but to my palate it tasted like the stuff you got in the cafeteria in elementary school: gloppy and metallic.
Finally, I ordered the 1/2 pound version of the original. The cashier asked me what temperature I preferred. (Medium rare is the proper answer for those of you playing at home.) Aha—here was my mistake. A fast food-style burger joint that will make me a medium rare, eight-ounce patty? This must be the burger to order.
When the final burger of my overly indulgent lunch arrived, I was, once againa, filled with hope. Alas, my hopes for some delicious meat (with at least a dash of salt) were dashed. The bigger burger was just a bigger miss. Throw in some average fries and it all added up to a belly full of disappointment and no appetite for dinner. How could Carney's—so successful for so many years—be such a let down?
A Car Cultural Divide
Heading back to my car I turned to take in the train-car burger spot one more time. The sun had begun to dip behind the Hollywood Hills in that perpetually premature dusk of fall's daylight saved. The longer shadows and softer light made the restaurant look even more compelling. "Trains are beautiful," I thought, "even when they are standing still."
I pondered both the history built into the place and the Los Angeles history the building points to. A city full of whimsical structures designed to get people out of their automobiles and have a meal. In a city that makes your car ride an extension of your home life, maybe it isn't always the quality of the food that makes for success. Maybe it's just that Angelenos long for a life not so defined by our automobiles. Even if it means eating lunch on a train.