Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Embrace the line"



     So what kind of idiot waits four hours in line to eat a hot dog?
     That would, um, be me.
     And my entire family.
     Hot Doug’s, of course, the famed frankfurter mecca, which stunned the encased meat world May 6 by stating that it will close in October. I had never been. No need. I’d heard the wait could be two hours, and that was before owner Doug Sohn’s announcement. Madness.
     But when I asked the older boy what he’d like to do this summer, the first thing he said was “Go to Hot Doug’s.” The first thing.
Fois gras and duck sausage with foie gras mousse
    On Friday, facing the three-day Memorial Day weekend, I ask what we should all do. “Hot Doug’s” my wife says. Thank you dear.
     Hoping to cut the wait, I form a strategy: Arrive at 10:30 a.m., when it opens. Maybe the line won’t be so long. That’s a plan!
     But we are late getting on the road; it’s 10:55 a.m. by the time I park on Elston and we walk down Roscoe toward Hot Doug’s.
     The line stretches nearly a block. Maybe 250 people. We get in back. After 10 minutes, a Hot Doug’s employee pops up to chide us.
     “From here the wait is four hours,” he announces, indicating a spot in front of us. “You’re waiting four hours for a hot dog!”
     He suggests we all come back another day. Makes sense to me; I’m ready to bolt, hit Honey Butter Fried Chicken down the block. No line. My family wants to stay put.
     I’m going home then, I tell them, spend a few hours on this beautiful day . . . doing something else. I’ll return in four hours.
     The older boy walks the block to the car with me, to retrieve a bottle of water. I work on his resolve: Why are you doing this?
     "What would I be doing at home?" he reasons. "Reading The New York Times. What am I doing here? Reading The New York Times." He shrugs; what matters the place?
     Reaching the van, I wonder: Go home, by myself, and do what? Weed the garden? Really? If waiting four hours for a hot dog is dumb, ditching my family is worse. I return.
     One hour. A vendor sells Mexican ices. A Good Humor truck parks, blaring "Turkey in the Straw" at full volume. I think of Marlowe: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it."
     The Hot Doug's guy comes back We now have a 2½-hour wait. "We've gained half an hour!" my wife says, brightly.
     Two hours. Snatches of conversation. "We're in already, we're eating," someone says, teasing a friend on the cellphone.
     Reading the New Yorker: My pal Adam Gopnik starts an article with his family in a trattoria in Italy. I can see the Gopniks in white linen, reclining on chaises, speaking Italian, sipping prosecco. Meanwhile, the Steinbergs stand waiting for a hot dog.
     Two hours. Calm settles in. A family plays Hacky Sack. Two gals hand out Red Bulls. Two guys from Fresno are hitting ballparks; 18 so far. "How often do you have the chance to do something truly insane?" I muse.
     Three hours. Two quite hefty women in front of us tire of standing and sit. But the line keeps moving so, not wanting to stand up, one scoots. The other crawls, on her knees, on the sidewalk. I almost suggest that instead of loading up on duck fat fries they consider checking themselves into a hospital. But that seems, oh, hostile.
     We get to the door at 2:30 p.m. A passerby asks how long we've been in line.
     "Three and a half hours," I say.
     "You're joking right?" he replies. I shrug.
     At just under four hours we reach Sohn, focused, polite, at the register, taking orders. I ask how he feels about retirement.
     "Bittersweet," he says. "Sad. No regrets." I mention that the line was, to my surprise, kind of fun. "Embrace the line," he replies.
     We take a seat. Our dogs are brought, we dig in. My chardonnay and jalapeno rattlesnake sausage with caramelized onion whipped mustard, cocoa cardona cheese, duck confit and Black Sea salt is excellent. My wife's Vietnamese chicken sausage with fried rice noodles, even better. The basic Chicago dogs we get as baselines are perfect. My wife raves about the duck fat fries.
     In the postmortem, my older son says he still prefers Little Louie's, the iconic Northbrook hot dog stand. "You both were really, really hungry and it clouded your judgment," he says. "I think the four-hour wait was more valuable than the food itself."
     My wife, as always, sums it up perfectly:
     "If we had spent four hours at Wrigley Field, nobody would have thought twice."
     "Better than going to Wrigley," I reply. "It cost a lot less, the food was far better, and we didn't have to watch the Cubs lose."
     Now that I've visited, I see why Sohn is closing. He has created a mania whose perceived worth dwarfs its actual value. I would go back. Unless he closes, people will wait for hours, days. Closing it is a kindness.

     Update: Chicago magazine's web site reported on Sept. 27 that people were waiting up to eight hours in line at Hot Doug's, which is set to close Oct. 3. 

7 comments:

  1. Before reading this column, I had never heard of this place even though I lived about 25 years in Chicago. It just impresses upon me again how little I really know and how different are the experiences of others.

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  2. Neil,

    FYI. My last comment got published without having to retype in any CAPTCHA words or numbers. Is this a change on your site or is something not quite working?

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    1. If it's a change, it's an inadvertent one. I'll look at the comments settings and see if there is a way to remove that. Seems annoying.

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    2. The CAPTCHA seems to be gone -- yay.

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  3. 4 hours in line for a hot dog!!

    I get fed up waiting more than 5 minutes in line at the Costco hot dog stand!
    Especially if someone is getting several pizzas.

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  4. There's much to be admired about the quality of patience. My husband wouldn't wait more than 30 minutes for a 5-star restaurant, never mind Hot Doug's.

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  5. Just to be clear, I've been to Hot Doug's twice. I've waited probably a total of an hour. Which has been enough to dissuade me from returning. It's a fine hot dog, no doubt. Some of the fancy ones were winners, some less so, IMHO. The duck fat fries didn't seem noticeably better to me than the regular, which were very good. Evidently, I'm a gustatory philistine -- so sue me!

    Comparing this to a trip to Wrigley is a non-starter, whatever one thinks of baseball and the Cubs. Your son had the best line, it seems to me: "'What would I be doing at home?' he reasons. 'Reading The New York Times. What am I doing here? Reading The New York Times?'" Can't argue with that, but then he prefers Little Louie's!

    The key, to me, is the return on time investment. The closest analogy would be to waiting in long lines for amusement park rides that last 2 minutes. That's stupid, too, IMHO, but to each one's own. How long does it take to scarf down a couple dogs with some fries? Ten minutes, tops? I can see waiting in line for an hour to go to a wonderful restaurant where you're going to spend 2 1/2 hours enjoying yourself. (Though I don't do that, either.) But 4 hours for hot dogs? Don't think so. Nor have I ventured out to wait an hour for a Donut Vault donut, which I know you love. No matter how good it is, it wouldn't be worth it to me. Whatevs...

    Neil, you end up saying "I would go back." You'd go back and wait 4 hours again? If so, I'm gonna have to reconsider your opinions about everything else, because you've lost it, buddy! ; )

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