Monday, May 23, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Happy crowd at the Shake Shack DC opening party.
by Carol Joynt

Who doesn’t love a burger, right? It’s practically un-American, and given that McDonald’s has franchised itself all over the world, it’s practically un-global. One could debate whether the nation’s capital is also the nation’s burger capital, but burgers do well here. They suit a time-pressed community who prefer to eat fast and get back to work. Plus Washington has a large population of college students who eat at all hours, and families, and people like me who can’t imagine life without milkshakes and fries. Real milk shakes and real fries.

The regular folks of Washington aren’t alone in loving a good quality fast food restaurant. President Obama and Vice President Biden famously crossed the Potomac River for a hit on Michael Landrum’s hamburgery, Ray’s Hell Burger. But it was in the city that the First Lady Michelle Obama made a beeline to my personal favorite, Good Stuff Eatery, the Capitol Hill burger mecca opened in 2008 by Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn. Long lines are routine. Spike’s lure is recreating the roadside burger stand experience but with high quality ingredients and brilliant milkshakes. For example, an addictive Toasted Marshmallow. You have to suspend any belief in calories before diving in, however.
Capitol Hill's Good Stuff Eatery: cheerful even on a rainy day. A giant cow bell hangs over the main room.
Inside Good Stuff before the lunch rush.
Good Stuff founder Spike Mendelsohn.
Hmmmm. Who could the "Michelle Melt" be named after?
Good Stuff fresh burgers on the assembly line.
The Good Stuff Eatery Shroom burger -- once bitten, an excellent explosion of cheddar cheese and mushroom.
Good Stuff fries.
Good Stuff's Milk Shake menu. Addictive: Good Stuff Eatery's Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake.
My son Spencer and I made a habit of hits on Good Stuff, because the place was special but also because it reminded us of a favorite NY burger joint: the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park.

Shake Shack was created by Danny Meyer, the culinary impresario who gave New York City a succession of acclaimed restaurants, including Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern. I don’t know the man but have admired him greatly and welcome any opportunity to eat at one of his restaurants. Each time I sadly departed New York, my wish was Danny Meyer would open something in DC.

Now he has, and Spike Mendelsohn best take notice.
Danny Meyer at the Shake Shack DC opening party. Danny Meyer from the rear: she's actually happy to see him!
Last week Meyer was in Washington for the opening party for DC’s own Shake Shack. He greeted fans, friends and foodies, including Zagat’s Olga Boikess and UrbanDaddy’s Jeff DuFour. When the staff weren’t dancing to the deejay, they passed trays of burgers, Chicago-style hot dogs, fries, wine, sodas and lots and lots of pint-sized milk shakes in strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and black and white. Meyer, smiling, mingled in the crush.

As with Good Stuff Eatery, Shake Shack sets itself apart from the fast food pack by producing quality, and quality comes at a price. A meal at either place is easily $20 or more, especially when alcohol is included. But at both places the food tastes fresh, real, authentic and worth it. I’m partial to Good Stuff’s ‘Shroom Burger, a revelation of Portobello mushroom, special sauce and cheese compressed inside a breadcrumb crust. Shake Shack has its own version, too. Both hit the spot but early on I’m still slightly partial to the Good Stuff version.
Shack burgers coming through.
Spencer Joynt helps himself.
Strawberry and vanilla shakes. Shake Shack's own wine.
Jeff Dufour gives the Shack burger a try ... contemplates the taste ... and looks like a happy customer.
The busy kitchen keeps up with the party demand. While Shake Shack DC "manager" Peter D. Conrad enjoys the opening party.
At Good Stuff, Spike has maintained the standard he set when he opened, not caving in to Washington’s too often tendency to rank price over taste, and he’s not franchised himself into ordinariness. Long ago there was Five Guys, a one of a kind that was worth the drive to Alexandria, Va. The quality was high. But then the business exploded into mass-franchising and, at least at the Georgetown outpost, there’s no comparison to the original. It has drifted downward to merely fast food. I hope that doesn’t happen with Good Stuff or Shake Shack.

The DC Shake Shack is at a busy corner just off Connecticut Avenue, around the corner from The Palm, down the hill from Dupont Circle, and a five-minute walk from the White House, not that the Obamas would be permitted to actually walk there. But by whatever means the Secret Service will allow, the First Family should go and make the comparison between the two contenders. My son, a good judge of burgers and a Shake Shack aficionado, came with me to the Shake Shack opening party with his friend Joe Powden, who is interning for Sen. Hank Brown of Colorado, meaning Joe has enviable proximity to Good Stuff. From the way Spencer and Joe scarfed down the Shack food, I’d say the competition is fierce.
The menu and more.
The Shake Shack cheeseburger.
A couple of Chicago-style hot dogs.
The Shake Shack 'Shroom Burger fresh out of the kitchen ...
And after a first cheesy bite.
The trays of burgers emptied as fast as the staff brought them onto the floor. Cheese fries ...
and a classic.
Fries in motion.
A whole mess a' Shake Shack.
The Shake Shack menu considers our four legged friends, too.
Note to New Yorkers: the DC Shake Shack is a whole lot fancier than the original Shake Shack, which is, almost literally, a shack in a park. At the DC location there will be no need to eat outside under heat lamps in the cold weather months.

Regardless, game on.
Not much talking but lots of eating ...
Shake Shack fans Joe Powden and Spencer Joynt with their swag of sunglasses and t-shirts.

Last week I reported that I’d never crossed paths with Domnique Strauss-Kahn, even though he lived in Georgetown and ran the DC-based International Monetary fund. Wrong. We had crossed paths. It was almost a year ago at the residence of the French Ambassador, Pierre Vimont, a reception honoring syndicated columnist James Hoagland. I went back and looked at my story and he was listed among the small group of VIP guests.
Also, I looked at the video I shot above (1:37), and in it, as I pan from Hoagland to the guests, there is a man who I believe is Strauss-Kahn, and a woman who appears to be his wife, standing side by side in front of windows and a lamp. No big moment, but interesting.

Also interesting is that if whatever happened in New York hadn’t happened, and he hadn’t been arrested and detained, DSK would have been back in Washington this week. A friend said he was on the guest list for a dinner party she was having. Clearly a rain check (if that’s what it would be called) was in order.
Carol's memoir is here, click to order Innocent Spouse.