There's obviously some disagreement in the New York Times newsroom about Danny Meyer's breakout burger chain Shake Shack, and it shows in Pete Wells' one-star review. While Wells put the restaurant on the Times star list for the first time, he did so in a pretty backhanded way. But in a Tuesday Diner's Journal post he also used Shake Shack as the standard by which to judge other burgers. And elsewhere in the Times, the love for Shake Shack is obvious, as with Sean Wilsey's glowing magazine profile of Meyer shortly after he opened a Shake Shack location in Connecticut. So what gives here? Wells likes the idea of Shake Shack a lot more than he cares for the burgers themselves. At least in Brooklyn.
To understand the importance of Wells's Shake Shack diss, you should know that the Shack is the closest thing New York City has to California's cult-favorite In-N-Out. People love making the comparison because people love being partisans about this kind of food. Both Shake Shack and In-N-Out have small menus that focus on burgers, fries, and shakes. They execute them well and they make you like them personally -- In-N-Out through its quirks such as its secret menu, the quaint Bible verses it prints on its packaging, and its googie charm. Shake Shack does it through the force of its niceness, and, somehow, its ever-present lines. As Wells wrote in his review, "Shake Shack’s pitch is that, yes, even in New York, we can all return to a simpler, cleaner, friendlier place and time." Of the lines, Wells wrote: It is the people’s endorsement: everybody waits, so it must be worth it."
Wells said outright in his review that Shake Shack didn't stand a chance at four stars. "To answer two obvious questions right away: Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand. No, probably not four stars." But his single star belies how much he obviously likes the Shack, in general, and it tars the entire chain with the single star that really only the Brooklyn location earned. In his Diner's Journal comparison piece, Wells had positive things to say about a (presumably non-Brooklyn) Shake Shack burger that he carried around in his pocket for an evening: "If you want to try it yourself, get a single burger, no cheese or other condiments. You’d be surprised how well it holds up to this kind of treatment."
The Times hasn't really given a star rating to a fast-food chain, and in other reviews of restaurants with multiple locations, such as Dos Caminos, it stars just one. Now the Shake Shack appears in the Times' database with the awkward honor of being both a critic's choice and a single-star restaurant
In fact, it was initially a little hard to understand whether Wells was reviewing just the new Brooklyn location or the entire Shake Shack chain. Even though the review is officially for the Brooklyn location, his review clearly alludes to other locations: "I ate at the Shake Shack in Brooklyn and others around the city more than a dozen times recently. After about a third of those trips, I walked away thinking, 'Wow, that was an awesome burger.' The other times, the food generally wasn’t worth the wait." Later, Wells really piled on the prose, describing disappointing burgers in just about the least appetizing terms ever: "More often, though, the meat was cooked to the color of wet newsprint, inside and out, and salted so meekly that eating it was as satisfying as hearing a friend talk about a burger his cousin ate."
So why use the Shack as a barometer to measure other burgers? There are a few reasons: For one, when the Shack is good, it's great. Wells raved that "on occasion it was magnificent, as beefy and flavorful as the outer quarter-inch of a Peter Luger porterhouse." It also has the benefit of being a chain, so even though Wells had to carry a half a burger around in his pocket for comparison's sake while doing his Diner's Journal post one evening, the seven New York City locations mean there's usually a fresh one within striking distance. Finally, the New York Times seems to be in the habit of using Shake Shack as an arbiter of good burgers. Back in 2006, a Diner's Journal post posited that its "cult-like success" heralded a dawning golden age of good, cheap burgers. In 2010, Jan Benzel even wrote a little love letter to Shake Shack's fries, which Wells panned in his review of the Brooklyn location.
The thesis in Wells' review is that Shake Shack bred competition too stiff for it to meet: "Today, for less than $10, you can get a burger at least as flavorful at Schnipper’s Quality Kitchen, FoodParc, Bill’s Bar & Burger, and Steak ’n Shake Signature." But New York loves its local institutions and The New York Times has certainly helped turn Shake Shack into one. It's done such a good job that if you want to challenge Wells' lukewarm take, you're just about guaranteed to stand in line yourself.
[Inset image via Kwong Yee Chen / Flickr]