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Closings Tue May 06 2014

The End of an Encased Meat Era at Hot Doug's

hotdougs_1.jpgIt doesn't make sense. Restaurants close for sad reasons: a lease cannot be renewed, a pivotal chef jumps ship, or quite simply, the place loses its spark. But for a restaurant to close when it has long lines of customers waiting patiently outside each day, industry notoriety, and (most importantly) no real competitors seems downright bizarre. But Doug Sohn still plans to close Hot Doug's forever on Friday, Oct. 3.

What started out in a small storefront in Roscoe Village turned into a testament to the versatility of hot dogs, from your standard ballpark frank to the more exotic fare -- yak, boar, venison and kangaroo are among the current specials. Hot Doug's had a lot to admire: duck fat fries, hot dogs named after Britney Spears, the kitschy interior. Many celebrities have visited -- from actress Anna Kendrick (who ate her namesake hotdog) to Anthony Bourdain, who waited in line like a commoner for his food. You've been there. I've been there.

Even when the line extends beyond the alley west of the building, it's hard to be mad at the long wait, especially when you're greeted by Doug himself, who always works the front counter with a smile. He's incredibly gracious and friendly, even when it's busy (or even when he's getting ticketed for serving foie gras during a citywide ban). He clearly values his employees and business; it's never been a surprise to learn that the shop would be closed for a few days for vacation, or over holidays. So, perhaps as a kind gesture to the empire he's built, Sohn decided it was time to quit while he was winning.

Again, it doesn't make sense. But neither did putting alligator meat into a sausage casing, and look where that went.

hotdougs_gameoftheweek.jpgSome other thoughts on the news from Drive-Thru staffers:

Andrew Huff: One of my proudest and saddest experiences with Hot Doug's was discovering the existence of a Hot Doug's delivery service, set up by a couple of bike messengers. Hot Doug Drop picked up orders from the restaurant and delivered them to two drop points in the Loop for a dollar a dog. It was a brilliant scheme, and too good to last. I knew my reporting on it would probably lead to its demise, and sure enough, the day after my story ran, Doug put the kibosh on Hot Doug Drop. I felt bad that I'd helped put these guys out of business -- entrepreneurs who were doing it almost more out of love of Hot Doug's than profits -- but understood the many reasons why Doug couldn't let it continue.

I will remind folks who don't want to stand in lines, which will no doubt be even longer this summer, that you can place to-go orders in advance, Monday through Thursday, and skip the line to pick them up.

Jen Bacher: I'm okay with it. Doug has worked hard for a long time, and his well-earned success has afforded him the opportunity to quit and start something new. I always respected that he ran his own shop day in and day out, took vacation whenever he wanted, etc.

Brandy Gonsoulin: Hot Doug's was always a place I had heard of, but never been in my 11 years in Chicago. A place whose lines bent around the corner and made foie gras fashionable for the non-foodies was enough to keep me curious but never to venture out (I don't like waiting.)

That is, until earlier this year where a friend convinced me that I couldn't I call myself a food writer if I didn't experience the Doug's. So with much anticipation, I did, biting my way through a buffalo dog, the signature classic dog and of course, a foie gras dog. Did it change my life? No. Did it make me reconsider my meh feeling about hot dogs? No. But it made me appreciate the culture of support that Chicago has for its food institutions and the people behind them. Not being a native Chicagoan, I felt bad for those who flocked there monthly, who said prayers to the duck fat gods, who took a commitment of Hot Doug's for life through tattoos... So long Doug, good luck with that interpretive dance thing; until then, Chicago will be scarfing down sausages until October.

 

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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