On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, the line at Shake Shack stretched nearly to the entrance of Madison Square Park. Tourists and New Yorkers alike waited, mostly patiently, for the beloved single-patty burgers with cheese, lettuce, tomato and “Shack Sauce,” as well as an assortment of hot dogs, crinkle-cut fries and custards. The weather was warm; the sun was shining; no one seemed particularly perturbed by the wait, which extended to nearly a half-hour from the back of the line to the window, and an additional 15 minutes or so once the order reached the kitchen.
This is the magic of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which began in 2001 as a hot-dog cart in the park adjacent to his Eleven Madison Park restaurant and has since grown into a multi-continent phenomenon. The waits are long; the lines are legendary; the burgers, fans insist, are well worth it. And it’s true: Shake Shack is exceptionally reliable, both at the original New York location—no longer a mere street cart but a permanent building, albeit one with no indoor seating—and at the shiny new Philly outpost at 20th and Sansom streets.
The signature Shack Burger is grilled and topped without fail by a melted slice of cheese, crisp leaf lettuce, tomatoes that are red almost beyond expectation and Shack Sauce, a creamy pinkish concoction that recalls the tang of Thousand Island dressing with none of the bitterness or bite. Crinkle-cut fries are crisp and 14-carat golden, with or without their signature cheddar-American blend cheese sauce—a treat that makes our hometown cheese, Whiz, look like the processed, unnatural mess that it is. These are the basics of burgers, done simply and right.
Meanwhile, custards are spectacularly creamy and rich, and even the iced tea-lemonade “Fifty/Fifty” is notably on point: tart, bitter, refreshing and without the cloying sweetness of most versions.
It’s hard to quibble with Shake Shack on its own merits. But like all restaurants, this one exists in the world, surrounded by people (largely waiting in line) and neighbors (who offer superior versions of both their signatures) and hype (20 minutes for a fast-food burger on a Thursday at 9 p.m.?), and although it’s impossible to blame the restaurant for its own popularity, it’s similarly impossible to extract the routinely delicious food Shake Shack serves from the sometimes crippling wait that accompanies it.
There are a lot of places to get a good burger within a few blocks of Rittenhouse Square—whether your preferred mode is diner simplicity (Five Guys) or trendy (500 Degrees) or upscale and well-heeled (Rouge). Likewise hot dogs (Underdogs) and frozen dessert (Capogiro). With that context in mind, it’s hard not to wonder: Given the choice, who would stand in line for yet another fast-food joint when that wait could just as easily be spent at a table looking forward to one of Center City’s many unique dishes?
The answer, as it turns out, is: an awful lot of us. There’s a simple appeal to a classic burger or dog paired with a beer and a shake or custard on a hot summer day. (And, hey, the menu even offers a brief but respectable wine list.) So—is Shake Shack an exciting addition to that corner? Without a doubt. Will it remain that way as the shiny gleam of “new” gradually fades from the equation? Time, and our notoriously hometown-proud palates, will tell.
2000 Sansom St. 215.809.1742. shakeshack.com
Cuisine type: Burgers, dogs, shakes, custards.
Hours: Daily, 11am-11pm.
Atmosphere: Aesthetically appealing burger joint, with reclaimed wood and brick details and a small sidewalk café.
Food: The basics done right: burgers and dogs, plus excellent cheese fries and a variety of custards and “concretes” (blended ice cream sundaes).
Service: Straightforward, simple and smiling.