The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Shake Shack Opens Today

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Nov 4, 2014 5:00PM

Photo by Melissa Wiley

If you’re a Shake Shack virgin, get ready for an education. Fourteen years ago, a hot dog cart in New York City incited an epic phenomenon now making its Chicago debut.

“The cult status of Shake Shack just happened organically,” Culinary Director Mark Rosati says with something still close to wonder. “We never could have planned it.”

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer’s renowned restaurant group originated among the white tablecloths of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. His third restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, since sold in 2011, overlooks the park where Shake Shack shook the foundations of the New York burger scene of which we’re now tasting the rumbles.

The original hot dog cart functioned as part of an effort to revive the then dodgy park in league with a larger conservancy while giving Eleven Madison Park patrons a nicer view. It wasn’t supposed to spawn an empire.

Hungry passersby were immediately wowed, however, by Chicago’s own Vienna Beef as well as the vendors’ four-star hospitality. The same servers from the high-profile restaurant also staffed the hot dog carts, and soon long lines were snaking through the shadows of the Flatiron Building. Once the iconic kiosk was constructed in 2004, Rosati and team applied equal effort to ensuring the burgers, crinkle-cut fries and custard shakes adhered to the same standards as the original hot dogs, all prepared in one of the country’s finest kitchens.

And just in case you think Shake Shack is fast food with East Coast hype, Rosati wants you to think again but to take your time about it.

“We really want you to linger here. We’re not fast food. We want this to be a place where people can really slow down and connect with each other. I’ve always personally had an affinity for the 1950s—when Fender made its first Stratocaster, when cars looked a little like spaceships, when roadside burger stands were real destinations, when people waxed their cars to drive from miles away just to sit there for the evening. We want to capture some of that feeling with a modern ethos, using all-natural sugar for instance, while keeping our food affordable.”

This is soda-jerk fare worth savoring, I can confirm for the skeptics. I tasted the majesty of Shake Shack’s basic cheeseburger and chocolate shake for myself yesterday afternoon and became an instant believer. Rosati admits it’s indulgence food that easily becomes dangerous and tries to restrict himself to one meal a month here. The danger, however, is worth flirting with and the burger juicy enough to rival your favorite.

Photo by Evan Sung

“We’re known for our searing,” Rosati said when I asked if there were any secret aside from just the high-quality ingredients. “The cheese is molten too, and the burger is so juicy you don’t need any sauce.”

The ambiance also lacks the glare you might expect of a typical hamburger chain. Certain corners almost invoke the intimacy of a coffee shop. The wood paneling and tabletops all derive from reclaimed bowling alley lanes designed in Brooklyn, a feature that deliberately evokes the trees of the park where the magic started.

Photo by Evan Sung

Chicago’s Shack has also brought some local favorites on board for sweetening its classic frozen custard concretes, including the Shack Attack with Vosges black salt caramel chocolate, Da S’mores with a slice of Bang Bang Pie s’mores pie, and Salted Carame‘L’ featuring a Glazed & Infused salted caramel doughnut, of which 5 percent of all sales will benefit the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Local craft beers and wine are also available.

Shake Shack is located at 66 E. Ohio.