Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto ON M6C 1A1 (map)
286 locations in 9 provinces. Full list at harveys.ca
The Schtick: Canadian fast-food chain where charbroiled burgers are dressed to order at the counter
The Burger: One of the better cooked-from-frozen burgers available, made better by the high quality, fresh toppings
Want Fries With That? The fries are just ok by themselves; go with the poutine instead
Setting: Your typical fast-food restaurant
Price: Original cheeseburger, $4.69; poutine, $3.99
Like most Canadians, my childhood is steeped in memories of eating at a few homegrown chains, and nothing takes me back to suburban Toronto in the '80s like Harvey's. Even decades later, biting into a Harvey's burger still tastes like Saturday afternoon with my dad, when the most difficult decision I had to make was choosing which fountain drink to get: the sickly sweet "grape drink," or the lemonade, which tasted like Wetnaps (in a good way).
The first Harvey's location opened in 1959, and according to their Wikipedia page, there's no Harvey behind the brand—instead, the shop was named after a car dealership (and was very nearly named Humphrey's instead). Burger options are fairly simple. There's an Original Burger (available as a single or double), a larger Great Canadian Burger (which has a larger patty and a flour-dusted bun), as well as burger-esque options like grilled or crispy chicken sandwiches and veggie burgers. Notable additions include the poutine, and the milkshake (chocolate only).
It's been a long time since my last visit, so I kept things simple with a cheeseburger topped with only the standard veggies, and an order of poutine. When you're a visiting Canadian, it's your civic duty to order poutine whenever possible.
The concept is a little bit different than most fast food places. After ordering, you slide your tray along the top of the counter until your hamburger is taken off the grill and placed on a bun. Then, like at Subway, you custom build your burger by selecting your toppings, while the burger is put together right in front of you. Options include lettuce, tomato, diced onion, hot peppers, and several different condiments, including ketchup, mustard, mayo, and barbecue sauce.
For a made-from-frozen fast food burger, Harvey's is pretty impressive. The beef patties have a distinct, seasoned flavor and a more robust beefiness than most fast food burgers. They also get a touch of char and visible grill marks, due to being chargrilled over a 600°F open flame. Because the beef isn't fresh, it does suffer in the texture department, registering as a bit chewy and rubbery, but adding fresh veggies like sliced tomato (which, surprise!, actually tastes like tomato), crunchy shredded lettuce, and pickle improves the burger immensely. If you think about the beef as one element of the burger, and not the star attraction, the final product really can be (as the jingle suggests) "a beautiful thing."
The lightly toasted bun looks a bit like a kaiser, but it's soft and squishy. This wasn't a particularly juicy burger so there was no danger that the bun would become saturated, but it did provide close to the ideal bread-to-meat ratio.
For a fast food chain, Harvey's poutine is pretty solid. The dish starts with an ample portion of golden brown spuds, topped with white cheddar cheese curds and gravy. The curds aren't fresh enough to squeak, but they are firm enough to hold their shape and not melt as soon as they make contact with the gravy, which is where the dish falters. The chicken-stock based sauce is a bit out of proportion and overly salty, so you might want to ask for less than usual, or at least have a big glass of water at the ready.
After being pleasantly surprised by the quality of Harvey's offerings, I was doubly sad about Hero Certified Burgers' dominance over the downtown Toronto burger landscape. Several locations have shuttered, but you can still get your fix at select locations, including St. Clair West or the semi-affectionately nicknamed "Hooker Harvey's" near Ryerson University.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her newly-launched food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax