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Jan 10, 2010 05:07 PM

Umami Burger, does hipster cred excuse terrible service?

My SO and I finally made it to Umami Burger La Brea today. We live within walking distance, but after hearing so much about their "growing pains" we decided to let them work it out for a while. When we saw that they'd opened other branches we figured the early problems were taken care of and decided to partake of what most people described as a pretty special burger.

There was a line outside when we got there around 1-ish. We chose to sit at the counter and avoid the wait. The manager (or who I can only assume was the manager as he wasn't a server) seated us, that is, after he finished checking the box office results on his phone.

Once seated, we waited, and waited and waited, my SO tried to catch the manager's eye, a server's eye. They all purposefully averted his gaze. Seriously, it was ridiculous, I guess the manager had to drill down on those "Avatar" numbers. Finally our server shows up, we ordered a couple burgers, ketchup and mustard (it's a separate order there and they make a big deal on the menu about how you only get one with the order of a side, go figure) fries, onion rings a salad and a couple sodas. The two different sodas we wanted were sold out. We switched our orders.

About 15 minutes later our burgers arrived. No condiments, no salad, no fries, no rings. The bus boy who brought them said our fries were coming. We waited, and waited and waited. We started eating our burgers. They were quite good, nice char, interesting combo of flavors on both the "Manly" burger and the Umami burger, although I could have done without the extra slathering of grease on the bun (the meat was juicy and the bun was soft, why cover the outside of the bun in grease which only necessitates making a hash out of your single napkin -- and good luck getting another, we asked, I kid you not, 5 times for the ketchup and mustard we'd ordered initially and got nothing but various shades of attitude from various servers and busboys for our trouble. And we're not demanding, entitled a-holes, we're patient, polite and friendly, it kind of makes it all even more galling.)

10 minutes later, fries arrive. No rings, no salad. The couple next to us got an incorrect bill, the people at the next table had rapidly cooling fries with no burger. We asked again for ketchup (we were up to time 4 by now and our server told us we "had" ketchup motioning at the Chinese style soup spoon that came with the fries. When we said we'd like some for the burger as well as the mustard, he sighed and disappeared into the kitchen, seeming very put out.) New people cam in and when they ordered the soda selection had dwindled to ginger ale and iced green tea. It was around 1:45. How do you run out of all your sodas? It's not even like it's a perishable item that you want to order sparingly, which I would understand.

We inquired about our salad to the same busboy who'd brought our burgers and promised fries, the server was AWOL. The surly busboy asked which salad it was? We said it was the regular salad on the menu. We didn't have menus so we couldn't specify beyond "green." He sighed and disappeared. We were halfway through our burgers, wanting to enjoy them with our sides but also aware that they weren't getting any hotter. Finally rings arrived, and, you guessed it, still no salad or condiments. Five times was the charm on two more soup spoons full of mediocre, unsweetened tomato sauce-like ketchup and good Dijon mustard. We canceled the salad, got a sneer. When the bill came we were charged for the salad.

It's a really good burger, I'm not going to take that away from them (the onion rings were nice, but I can understand people who don't like the super fluffy batter and those who think the fries are too "baked potato-y" I prefer shoestring fries myself, but they were okay) but it's so obvious that whoever is in charge hasn't given nearly the thought or care to the basics of customer service that they did with the menu items. I would understand being able to get away with this if you were, say, the only dim sum place in all of North Dakota, but they're a hamburger place (and a pricey hamburger place at that) in Los Angeles, during a recession. We have options, LOTS of them! And now they've expanded when they obviously haven't even come close to mastering the basics at their original location.

Somehow for a quarter of the price and none of the attitude there are burger joints all over town that manage to get you a burger and fries with condiments all at the same time, relatively quickly, with a smile . Maybe they don't have Lardons or Shitake mushrooms or even Parmesan Frico, but ya know what, I think I can live without 'em.

Umami Burger
850 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

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  1. And to think, some posters here complain about rude service at Father's Office. lol

    1. I wonder if Gia DeLaurentiis gets service like that?

      1. I've never really had horrible service there (like yours), but I've never really had great service. It's been sub-par to standard. Their burgers are IMO, the best in LA (and the best I've had). I don't complain about the price, because well, this is LA, and it's like $9 for an AMAZING burger. Alot of "gourmet" burgers are easily over $10, and FO is the only one that is almost on the same level. I don't care much for their sides except their onion rings, which I really like, but are fairly greasy. Oh, and you're better off w/o the ketchup - it's horrible IMO.

        Seriously though, where can you find a good burger for $2.25? Alot of fast food burgers are over that. The best burger value I've found here is Philly West's burger (about $5-$6).

        1 Reply
        1. re: mdpilam

          I mostly heartily agree with mdpilam. Sure, the layout at La Brea blows (the side room reminds me of the bad girl closet in "Carrie") and the service isn't great (although the last time I went it was fine), but that is a fantastic $9 burger. Second best burger I've ever had, right after Bartley's in Boston (and that place sets the gold standard for bad service/atmosphere/etc...even the napkins are annoyingly small.) I'm suspicious that Umami's burgers started out slightly larger, but even now I'm more than full after one. But the taste is just good pure meatiness. And at $9 is cheaper and better than anyplace comparable (ugh, the boring pressed patty i had at Library Alehouse in SM the other night still makes me angry.)

          Oooh, and the Cahuenga location's right behind Urban? I'm definitely going there after a jaunt to the Sunday Hwood Farmer's Market. Hello, Sunday afternoon nap!

        2. I went there when they first opened and they were always out of stuff.

          The final straw was when I went there and was served a burger that was barely cooked. When I asked about it, the waiter told me that was the way they made them. I didn't eat the burger and they didn't seem to have a problem that I only took one bite before asking for the check.

          Lately I've been going to Golden State. I like their burgers and the owners are very friendly.

          3 Replies
          1. re: bsquared2

            I remember the late great L.A. food critic Elmer Dills and one of his dining pet-peeves was when dishes that were hardly touched were taken away by the server----but without any question as to why it wasn't eaten! In cases of very bad service, Elmer always said to write or call the management and let them know of your displeasure (Elmer said that many unknowing restaurant owners would appreciate knowing when their employees are not providing good service to valued customers).

            1. re: HBfoodie

              They know and apparently don't care.

              1. re: latindancer

                I have to agree. Just from the volume of Chowhound complaints, there's no way Umami management isn't aware of their customers' opinion of the service.

                That's not to say Elmer's advice is wrong, though. I'm even more likely to make an issue of bad service when the food is as good as I think it is at Umami. If a place has both bad food AND bad service, I see no point in speaking up -- I just go away and never come back.

                But if a place has something going for it (like Umami's burgers and onion rings, imo), and if I don't complain about the things I don't like (the service and the fries), I validate the bad service, and I lose the right to complain when an otherwise good place closes after losing customers.

          2. Thanks for the report, PinotPlease. Well written and very descriptive. I know that I'll not be trying Umami any time soon.

            3 Replies
            1. re: maudies5

              You took the words right out of my mouth, maudies5. I second that thought! Thank you, PinotPlease. Umami has fallen to the bottom of my list of places to try.

              1. re: maudies5

                Thanks to all for the Unami report. I think I'll give this place a pass. My GF is not one to sit around for bad snooty service. The chinciness on the ketchup is just ridiculous. I hope someone sends this thread to the manager or owner of Unami. The good thing about being a customer is that I can take my hardearned money somewhere else and tell Unami to eff off.