by Adam "AJ" Golub
A great moment in unfine dining history happened, not coincidentally, in one of the original bedrocks of flamboyant lifestyle and artistic culture in the Western hemisphere - San Francisco. The scene was set in Fisherman’s Wharf, the bustling tourist and cultural center where museums, historical parks, art galleries and upscale shopping centers share a pier with many vendors serving clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. Your average consumer of unfine dining looks for something a little more resembling “street meat” when stopping by a roadside vendor, but in an upscale San Francisco district such as Fisherman’s Wharf, where sit-down staples such as Pompei's Grotto and Alioto's #8 have been thriving for generations, beggars can’t exactly be choosers when nature abides you dig into some old fashioned unfine calories. For years, the McDonald’s corporation had its sights set on Fisherman’s Wharf, looking to cash in on one of the biggest tourist attractions in one of America’s most visited cities. And for just as many years, the noble stewards of Wharf culture, who marshal the pier like a pimp in a whorehouse, had outright rejected them. But then, in 2001, materializing as an oasis in the desert, an In-N-Out burger franchise opened right in the heart of the pier.
"It isn't as if we love fast food," said Chris Martin, managing partner of the Cannery shopping center which houses said In- N-Out, located one block down from the Wharf’s front gate. "Ordinarily, all of us would be up in arms about a fast-food operation coming to Fisherman's Wharf. This is different." It is within this statement that a true revolution in unfine dining was secretly occurring. In-N-Out Burger, a fast food restaurant selling cheeseburgers, French fries and milk shakes almost exclusively, was carrying an allure belying its true product. Somehow, Mr. Martin felt a fast food restaurant (read: no wait service and self-seating) serving burgers, fries and milk shakes was wholly different than McDonalds and its contemporaries.
Interestingly enough, the Zagat survey agrees. So do Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali and (gasp) Julia Child. All four modern culinary masters are on record as being regular customers of the chain. Ms. Child, one of the first celebrity champions of the chain, admitted to knowing every location of the restaurant between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. Child also famously had the burgers delivered to her during a hospital stay. On his show, No Reservations, Mr. Bourdain called it “stoner food divined by the gods.” Surely, The Dude, Walter and Donnie abide.
In 2005, while making approximately $20,000 per hit for the New York Yankees, Jason Giambi tried to become a franchisee for the auteurs of his favorite burgers, In-N-Out, and bring the chain to Manhattan. The family owned corporation politely declined, stating an intention to remain solely “unicoastal.” Notwithstanding the tried and true marketing technique of limited availability (see: Rib, Mc), I don’t believe Zagat and Julia Child would be persuaded to proclaim burger greatness solely influenced by such gimmicks. So, what makes In-N-Out truly different? If I want to pig out on a burger, cheese fries and a strawberry milkshake, why does flying to the easternmost In-N-Out location in Austin, Texas seem like a rational thought? In lampooning the rest of the industry in Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser actually PRAISES In-N-Out for its exceptional treatment of employees and cleanliness, but, most of all, for its use of natural and fresh ingredients. Now, we are onto something.
In the same year as the Giambino’s failed attempt to lure In-N-Out to the unofficial capital of the world, something strange was happening to the cheeseburger in New York City. In the unfine dining world, it was something of an apocalypse. It was trendy. It may or may not have involved foie gras. Upscale burger joints were springing up all over the city’s wealthiest zip codes. Big, frilly, fancy buns were adorning burgers of kobe and lamb, topped with truffle butter at chic sounding places like Rare, and Burger Boutique. Oh, the humanity.
Interestingly enough, it took a fine dining master to deliver New Yorkers from the chic purgatory of the upscale burger establishment. Restaurateur Danny Meyer, he of Eleven Madison Park and Tabla (two of the priciest and most well regarded places your girl would probably want you to take her to on Valentine’s Day), threw down the gauntlet at these fine dining burger blights. Meyer’s response to the wannabe fine dining burger movement was Shake Shack, which opened in Madison Square Park in the spring of 2005.
The formula for Shake Shack was clearly derived from In-N-Out; simple, fresh burgers with everything you need and no more. Built around a soft potato roll that’s sliced only to the far edge (for easy handling), a fresh ground patty of sirloin and brisket (or two) is fixed with any or all of the core lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle toppings, a slice of American cheese, and “shack sauce,” a tangier take on thousand island dressing. In its Best of New York in 2005, New York magazine described the perfectly molded patty as allowing “all those tasty fat molecules to move around freely and express themselves on the griddle.” That’s a little over my head, but I couldn’t agree more. The chain also offers a truly delicious selection of “frozen custards” in beverage form and also as “concretes.” One such concoction includes maple syrup flavored custard with waffle chunks, fresh banana, and bacon infused peanut brittle code named The Urban Lumbershack.
Meyer, along with master culinary peers such as Ramsay and Batali, clearly have unfine dining instincts. The problem, though, is that their inner fat kid has made these fast food establishments anything but. If you go to the off the strip In-N-Out in Vegas, you’re waiting a minimum of 30 minutes from order to first bite (once again, off the strip!!!). When it first opened in 2005, the line at Shake Shack, comprised of downtown hipsters, Soho models, midtown business folk, and overweight unfine dining enthusiasts alike, could run you as long as 90 minutes all told. The buzz was out - fast food was, like, so in that season. Even still, seven years later, on a nice summer day in Madison Square Park, or at newer locations in Citifield and the Upper West Side, you’re looking at a bare minimum 30 minute wait that will likely be closer to an hour. Lovers of unfine dining in Fisherman’s Wharf spend approximately 20 minutes getting a Double-Double these days.
But here is something the discerning taste crowd doesn’t truly understand about fast food: there is no such thing as waiting. Part of the genius of the Big Mac and the Whopper is that it can be obtained in under 5 minutes. Are the simple, fresh, old-fashioned delicacies enjoyed at In-N-Out on the West Coast and Shake Shack in New York worth these astronomical lines? Can I not get basically the same thing in more than half the time from that chick Wendy?
After years of intense research, sampling burgers of varying quality and size from fast food restaurants around the world, along with many trips to the aforementioned In-N-Out and Shake Shack, I can definitely say the following - The large fast food chains are, without question, serving far inferior products to the ones found at Shake Shack and In-N-Out burger. The quality of the food at these locations is undoubtedly superior, and the taste and overall experience of eating at In-N-Out and Shack Shake is definitely worth an occasional wait on an extraordinarily long line for a cheeseburger.
With that being said, I am a true unfine diner, and therefore, by definition, a fast food equal opportunist. I am also not a San Francisco resident.
*editor's note: see Adam's take on the McRib, here.