This weekend we checked out Palo Alto’s new restaurant, The Counter; a place that is having some buzz in the blogosphere (and their original Santa Monica place supposedly being mentioned on Oprah). The thrust seems to be highly customizable burgers. Kinda like The Fractured Prune’s version of donuts I blogged about recently.

I was surprised at how sedate and genteel the whole thing was, aesthetically. I was expecting much more of a cartoony-branded affair. This was nice.

Even the cash featured art more than heavily branded graphics. This worked against them a little bit – it was hard to figure out what to do, there was no hostess stand. Upon coming in, if no one is there to greet you, you see a stack of cilpboards with menus. Are these for us? I actually told the guy who came up “we have no idea what we are doing” – a comment I wouldn’t normally make (I’m not that insecure, but really, we couldn’t figure out the script. A bit more wayfinding signage, branded or not, would have helped.

Here’s the menu:
There’s a lot of choices there! It’s surprising, exciting, and overwhelming. They could use a little help in form design here, again, asking you to wayfind through a series of decisions (although burger OR bowl needs some visual work to make the decision-fork a little clearer). But really, the impact of that massive set of choices (some with price premiums, some not) is pretty incredible.

They have mitigated that slightly with a set of pre-defined burgers, where they’ve chosen a few combinations, given them names (The Counter Burger) and saved you the trouble of figuring it out. But what I want is to make my own custom burger – the key experience here, it seems – but with some guidance: what goes with what? what tastes complement other tastes?

If you want to redo a room, you can consult a color wheel for info on complementary colors, you can find advice that might tell you to pick the carpet first and then select paint and fabric next [whatever the advice might be], that hot colors look good in a small room, and cool colors in a big room will make it feel more empty [again, or whatever – I’m making this up].

It’d be pretty amazing to have some help with this, if you want it. If you know what you want to eat, go for it, but if you need some help pairing up sauces and buns and so on, what can we do? Perhaps The Counter wants you to experiment and come back over and over again (we felt that urge, certainly), but what fun it would be to have some guidance!

We figured it out, eventually, with a mix of traditional (tomatoes) and curious (hard boiled eggs, english muffin) choices.

Appetizers: dill pickle chips, yet again proving that anything is good when breaded and fried. And a half-and-half appetizer of regular fries (poor) and sweet potato fries (good, but not the best I’d ever had).

Burgers were unique, tasty, fun. Overall a good experience. We’re eager to go back and try something different next time. But $70 for four burgers, appetizers, a couple of beers and glasses of wine? Ouch.

They had just the right amount of new-restaurant inquiries from servers and managers asking us if everything was okay; good problem solving when something was missing (they ran in and got us a plate of the stuff we wanted).


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