Yesterday Hot Doug’s closed, as has been widely reported in the local and national media. There have already been some great tributes and reflections on the glory that was Hot Doug’s, and many are sure to follow. We’re very proud to have been the publishers of Hot Doug’s: The Book, the creation of which gave us plenty of opportunity to reflect on what made Hot Doug’s so special.
I’m a sausage fan myself, so appreciating Hot Doug’s was never a big stretch for me. I worked at a great hot dog place when I was in high school, and when I first came to Chicago in the late 80s, I lived two blocks or so from the original Gold Coast Dogs during its great run. When Hot Doug’s came along, I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about Doug’s just-right, serious but lighthearted approach to the humble glory that is the Chicago red hot.
Over its storied history, I think Hot Doug’s ultimately achieved its greatness in fulfilling the ideal of what a true Chicago hot dog joint might be. One of the keys to its success is that Hot Doug’s never pretended to be anything else. But the Chicago hot dog joint is a wonderful thing. And to be the greatest hot dog joint ever is a ticket to deserved immortality.
What does this mean? There are a lot of other hot dog joints that in many respects are very similar to Hot Doug’s, with similar layouts, similar decor, and even similar basic menus (we’ll get to those fabled specials in a minute). Anyone who’s ever gotten a hot dog in this town is familiar with the format. What Doug did is set a standard that maybe no other hot dog purveyor has even aspired to, let alone reached.
Anthony Bourdain famously decreed that Hot Doug’s was one of the “thirteen places to eat before you die,” but when he did so, he wasn’t trying to suggest that patrons at Hot Doug’s would have the same kind of experience diners have at places like Alinea, Per Se, or Noma. He meant that what Doug brought to his work was the same kind of passion and joy that all great chefs bring to their restaurants—and that to find this kind of passion and joy hidden away in a neighborhood hot dog joint was a true wonder.
When I was working on Doug’s book last year, I was also working with Sanford D’Amato on his book, Good Stock, about his own legendary career as a nationally celebrated chef. I heard Sandy stress more than once that when it comes to making great food, what matters is the passion and commitment the cook brings to its preparation, more than the particular dish. Every dish is elevated by what its cook brings to making it. At the same time, I was also working with Paula Haney on The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, which reveals what happens when a great pastry chef decides to devote herself to that most familiar of desserts.
In the end, it came down to the food, as it should for any great restaurant. Hot Doug’s reputation really took off when Doug famously began exploring the rococo outer dimensions of exotic and game sausages, served with extravagant complements–toppings, condiments, and buns–to match. Like everyone who ate there over the past decade or so, I waited in some very lengthy lines to get my meal, and that meal never failed to gratify. I never had a meal at Hot Doug’s that wasn’t well conceived, well executed, and well served. Hot Doug’s deserved every accolade it received. It fully lived up to its reputation, a reputation Doug Sohn never stopped earning every day its doors were open. It was the greatest hot dog joint ever.