Last night I had my first hamburger on American soil: having arrived in New York exactly two weeks today, one may say it took me quite a while to eat one. Not being a vegetarian, that can be explained chiefly by my own resistance to the fast-food establishment — based on its ideological and nutritional values — but also because, to be honest, I’ve never been such a fan of hamburgers in my life. You do have to give in to tradition sometime, so I was gladly taken to Shake Shack, following promises of good burgers, solid shakes and al fresco dining in the heart of Manhattan.
First, there’s the line: it’s long and part of the place’s reputation and experience, so the people at Shake Shack — or some people for them — came up with “Line Exercises” and “Line Trivia” boards, designed to keep you entertained. They work, but we could have actually used a menu or two while waiting, to get better acquainted with our future — sadly not immediate — food choices.
Once you get to the shack, orders are meant to be fast (the line, ever long, goes on behind you) and clear. I asked and paid exactly 10 dollars for a Shack Burger, regular French Fries and a regular Lemonade. “I’ll leave a shake for a future visit” — I thought. I was given a sort of taser-gun-remote-control device that would — of course! — shake and light up when my order was ready.
On the way to our table, I glanced at the Shake Shack merchandise on offer: a few nicely-designed T-shirts and other garments, which played on the shaking qualities of the place and its shack-like iconic building. The restaurant’s graphic design and typography, spread around on the shirts, boards, menus and even on the shack façade is sweet, and the color palette is custardy-chocolaty-creamy toned, as you would only expect.
We sat down and awaited our remote-controlled shaking devices to react. After mine did, I proceeded to the counter and yelled my number. I was given a small, feeble cardboard tray with my order; the lemonade cup came on the side, a smile or even an acknowledgement of my human (for all it mattered, I was #72) presence was spared. Time is of the essence here (remember the long line?), despite the dark-green garden metal chairs and tables and the incandescent light-bulb village fête-like lighting. The Shake Shack is, despite its friendly ideas and seemingly balanced food options, a (independent or a chain? – hard to tell!) fast-food place.
The food itself didn’t betray its nature: The burger was sort of thrown inside the tray, resulting in a crumpled, soft-bread sandwich; the burger was not McDonald’s cardboard, but it was no fillet-mignon either. The fries were wavy and cute, yet greasy enough to stay in the memory of the gourmand for some of the following hours. Ketchup was Heinz, mayonnaise Helmann’s — no defiance of the establishment here. The lemonade was correctly bitter and sweet. I did have a taste of the shakes though, and they alone seem reason enough to come back, and often, to Madison Square Park.
In the end, the Shake Shack is all about its location, and about eating outside, under the trees, taking your time and enjoying one of the last Summer evenings of the year with friends. Once you get through the fast part of the food, at least here you can concentrate on the rest of what life, and the city, have to offer.
This text was written on September 9th, during the first class of Ralph Caplan’s “Critical Imperative” Course, where all 15 of us had to write “a brief critique of a recent experience”.