Let’s clear something up right away.  DC’s newly-opened Shake Shack is NOT a New York burger joint parachuting into the District and claiming to be God’s gift to quick-service.  Many things about this place – from the menu to the venue – have been tailored to suit Washington.  And we were pleased to see it works.  Well.

Union Square Hospitality Group and the Shake Shack team scouted locations in Washington for two years before finding a spot that offered the combination of community and energy that they were looking for. When the space formerly occupied by Fuddrucker’s where 18th Street meets Connecticut Avenue opened up, they knew they had it.  Their “roadside burger joint” would become a casual gathering place in the nation’s capital, complete with indoor seating.

We took a look on Tuesday, braving the opening day crowd to check out the newest burgers and shakes to enter the already-competitive DC market.  What we found was a restaurant that was ready for the massive crowds that were lined up out the door and down the block.  And, more importantly, a place that could easily stand on its own, without the cache of its New York inspiration.

Lots of photos and our initial tastes after the jump.

So how do you create a unique restaurant experience without losing the identity of the original?  The first Shake Shack, in New York’s Madison Square Park, is a free-standing building not unlike the snack shacks on the National Mall.  We checked it out a few visits back and had a great time.

Since then, three more Shake Shacks have opened up in Manhattan.  There are outposts in Brooklyn and Miami, with another scheduled for Westport, Connecticut.  A month ago, they opened in Dubai – some of the crew currently staffing the DC location came here directly from that store to help ensure a smooth start.

With this kind of expansion taking place, you might expect some tension between the desire to offer a uniform, easily recognizable product and the need to establish individual attitudes for each venue.  To provide that consistency of experience, signature menu components like their Shack Sauce, Brooklyn Brewing Company’s “ShackMeister Ale” and the burger patties themselves are being brought in from the same producers who create them for the New York locations.  Chris Shott at the Washington City Paper wrote about the unique ground beef they will be using in a piece last month.

Here in Washington, the balance point is struck by the decor.  The open kitchen sits inside an area made to evoke the original Madison Park location, though the connection isn’t so obvious as to scream “HEY!  DON’T I LOOK FAMILIAR?”  Many of the tables and countertops have been converted from reclaimed bowling alleys (the communal table in the middle of the dining room even bears a stamp describing its origin), and the original architecture of the building has been exposed and featured.

But enough about the aesthetics…what about the food?  As you can see from that picture before the jump, we tried a basic Shackburger, which comes with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and Shack Sauce on a potato bun for $4.75.  Made to order, it arrived in less than 10 minutes and was an impressive medium-rare with a light pink center.  Unlike some burger joints in the area, Shake Shack’s condiment offerings run to the classic – ketchup and mustard.

The Shack Sauce on the burger is like a more subtle Thousand Island dressing.  It provides a little bit of tang that works well with the rest of the flavors.  Unfortunately it sounds like duplicating the sauce at home could be a challenge, as I was told that there are quite a few ingredients that go into the sauce.

It’s not just the burgers that are made to order.  The shakes and concretes, made from deliciously decadent frozen custard, take about as long as a burger because they’re handspun.  Six flavors of shake are available for $5.00 each, and a seventh made with “certified organic Arabica fairly traded coffee” sells for $5.50.

What’s a concrete, you ask?  Why it’s a custard blended with mix-ins to give it a rough appearance and a thick texture like that of setting concrete.  It’s also another opportunity for local flavor.  You can make your own, or you can try the “Presidential Sweet,” the “Majority Whip” or the “Washington Monu-mint;” a portion of the sales of the Monu-mint will be donated to Share Our Strength, so hopefully it will be a hit.

In addition to the basic vanilla and chocolate custards, a special flavor will rotate in on a daily basis.  By visiting the Shake Shack website, you’ll be able to view the “Custard Calendar” – seven different flavors like Strawberry Blond and Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel being offered exclusively on their respective days.  Each month the company rolls out another set of seven flavors.  Just stopping by for a cold treat to beat the heat?  You’ll be able to jump onto the C-Line once you get into the restaurant to order more quickly.

I spoke with Shake Shack CEO David Swinghamer and COO Randy Garutti at the opening and was pleased to hear their take on Shake Shack’s arrival in the District.  “DC is already a great burger town,” said Garutti.  “We are what we are, it’s not about where we’re from.  We don’t want to replace other burger places…we just want to be added into your rotation.”  He mentioned local favorites including Ray’s, BGR, Good Stuff Eatery and Five Guys as other restaurants that might be in that rotation.  When I asked Swinghamer about future expansion in the DC area, he simply said that they plan to take their time and grow into a part of the DC area before branching out, though they would love to move into some of the other high-traffic DC neighborhoods.

Though you’re sure to encounter lines if you try to go anytime soon, you needn’t despair if the line is out the door and then some when you arrive.  Garutti estimates a 15-minute wait from the front door to the counter to place your order, and then a wait of 5 to 10 minutes for your food once you order.  We haven’t put that estimate to the test yet – if you have, please leave a comment and let everyone know what to expect.

Shake Shack
1216 18th St., NW
Washington, DC
Shake Shack on Urbanspoon