Burger Wars: Shake Shack Makes Its Way to West Hollywood

Shake Shack - H 2016
Peter Flax

A New York icon opens its first location in the heart of In-N-Out territory, spurring long lines and a juicy debate about whether Los Angeles needs another burger chain.

The burger war between New York and Los Angeles escalated to Threat Level Orange on Tuesday with the opening of California’s first Shake Shack in West Hollywood. At lunchtime, a crowd stretched a full city block on Santa Monica Boulevard, all of them patiently waiting and Instagramming the moment.

The restaurant — which has a wonderful patio space and a Magnolia tree and the aesthetic of a roadside burger stand done up by a design-driven architect (Austin-based Michael Hsu Office of Architecture) — opened its doors at 11 a.m. after a ribbon-cutting attended by founder and chef Danny Meyer, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti and West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath. At this point roughly 50 people were cued up to inaugurate the opening, including two young men who boasted getting in line at 4 a.m. At noon, people who were placing their orders indicated that they had waited roughly an hour to reach the counter.

“At least they gave me a bunch of free samples while I waited,” said Laura, an actress who moved from New York to L.A. three months ago, as she finished her ShackBurger and fries. “And a shake,” she added.

Despite rumors that the opening would attract Hollywood royalty, an informal census taken by this reporter found that most of those in attendance were displaced New Yorkers, out-of-work actors, food bloggers or curious In-N-Out devotees — all of them grasping napkins.

On paper this is not a groundbreaking launch for Shake Shack — the company already operates 86 locations in 13 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Japan, the Middle East and Russia. But in terms of optics, opening a location in West Hollywood has more weight than slinging burgers in Baltimore or Paramus or even Dubai. 

PR representatives on hand were quick to point out that the standard Shake Shack menu had been expanded with a couple of L.A.-only items, including the Roadside Double — a double Swiss cheeseburger with Dijon mustard and onions that is intended as a respectful homage to the French dip, which was pioneered locally. The Hollywood Reporter asked two employees for clarification of how a cheeseburger could honor a roast beef sandwich, and both drew attention to the way the onions are simmered in beer and bacon.

Another figurative touch is the special Concrete (Shake Shack’s branding for a frozen custard with mix-ins) called the “Rainbow Connection,” which will only be available at this West Hollywood spot (other locations in Glendale and downtown L.A. are coming). With every purchase of this Concrete — which is blended with donuts from the nearby Cofax Coffee Shop, fresh jam from the sort-of-nearby Sqirl and a symbolic swirl of rainbow sprinkles — Shake Shack will donate 5 percent of the sale price to LA Pride’s LGBT advocacy.

Most self-proclaimed In-N-Out fans seemed reluctant to pay compliments to the hamburgers, though they all seemed to finish their lunches. “It’s just alright, nothing special,” said Bundy, a food blogger, with a theatrical scowl. “But I have to admit the chicken sandwich is the bomb. And I wish In-N-Out served beer," he added, sipping a pale ale made exclusively for the chain by the Brooklyn Brewery.

Expatriate New Yorkers were less circumspect. “I feel so nostalgic eating this burger,” said Alfonzo, who now lives in West Hollywood as a hospitality-industry consultant. “Every bite tastes a little bit like home.”

Nadia, a USC student who has visited the original Madison Park location in Manhattan “many times,” wiped her chin as she weighed in on the L.A.-NY burger war. “In-N-Out is fine but this is just better,” she said, pausing to express why the Smokeshack is her favorite. “It’s simple. And it has bacon on it.”