On any given day the line for Hot Doug’s goes out the front door, turns at the corner and trails off down an otherwise nondescript suburban street on Chicago’s sprawling North Side. An hour-long wait to get in is far from abnormal, but it’s gotten even longer since Doug Sohn announced he was closing his acclaimed upscale hot-dog shop, on October 4.
“From literally the moment we put the announcement up that morning, business has changed, like drastically, as far as number of patrons and the length of the line,” says Sohn.
Wait in that line while you can, because soon diners will no longer be able to sample meat casings stuffed with the likes of rabbit, elk, curried lamb – or beef, if you’re into that. Tattoos of the Hot Doug’s logo will no longer be redeemable for a free lunch, you’ll no longer be able to bitch about the Cubs with Doug while you order duck-fat fries – he mans the register, day-in and day-out, and chats with everyone – and trying to parse the obscure identity of the daily celebrity sausage’s namesake will be a mere memory of tantalizing frustration.
Eating at Hot Doug's is a viscerally indulgent experience: Long before your first taste, there's the mouth-watering smells, brightly hued blue-and-yellow walls, and blaring punk rock. The food would still change hearts and minds if bought off the back of a pickup, but these other sensory factors are compounded by the heightened anticipation wrought by the long wait that, because this is Chicago, is likely to be pretty cold eight months a year. And despite ingredients that might be considered highbrow in other circumstances, the food at Hot Doug’s is almost always accessible to average eaters – because, after all, these are hot dogs.
But why did a guy with formal culinary training base his profession on hot dogs?
"One, I do love them. Two, there’s also a part of me – I know what my talent level is. I am not going to be, you know, a Grant Achatz, a Thomas Keller, like that level of chef and artist," Sohn says, comparing his talent level to a journeyman NBA player, if not Michael Jordan (he happily accepts a Steve Kerr comparison). "And for me, good food’s good food. Whether it's a hot dog, whether it's fine dining, molecular gastronomy, whatever it is. It should taste good, it should be hot and it should come to the table in a timely fashion. So, why not hot dogs?"
Sohn opened Hot Doug’s in 2001; since then he has pushed the boundaries of what a hot dog can be by elevating the encased meat to an impressive culinary feat, earning admiration and acclaim from culinary experts like Anthony Bourdain, and a legion of loyal followers and regular customers, and becoming a known name among Chicago’s many culinary icons.
Some weird things have happened in the last 13 years, too. In 2006, in a particularly absurdist chapter in Chicago’s ignominious political history, the sale of foie gras was banned at restaurants city-wide. Hot Doug’s happened to serve a hot dog whose key component was foie gras, and Sohn didn’t take the ban seriously. Soon, he found himself at the center of a controversy he didn’t actually care much about.
"'This is stupid, and what are they going to do?,'" he thought at the time. "So we got the very first warning letter and we had that framed up on the counter until, yeah, the Health Department didn’t find that amusing either." Officials showed up at his restaurant, and taped-off part of his freezer like a crime scene. From then on he became the symbol of the anti-foie gras ban, regardless of the fact that he didn’t actually feel very strongly about it. As for the ethics of foie gras, Sohn has mixed feelings.
"I’m ambivalent about it," he says. "I’m ambivalent about meat in general. I don’t make a moral distinction between how we get foie gras and how we get eggs in this country."
The ban was eventually overturned in 2008, and Sohn brought back the foie gras dog.
"Among the many surreal things that have happened over the years, that was up there," Sohn says. And that’s coming from a guy who’s seen his restaurant’s logo tattooed on a woman’s, well... an area not readily visible. The passion that people feel for Hot Doug’s has never been more evident than it has since he announced his impending closing earlier this year.
"I gotta be honest with you, it's – so much of it is so cool, so unbelievably great," he says of the outpouring of admiration from his customers. "And flattering and humbling. I genuinely wish everyone could experience this kind of thing. It’s also the part I’m going to miss the most, the customer interaction. That’s the part I’ve loved over the last 13-plus years."
An irony about owning a restaurant is that you don’t truly get to enjoy it, and that has apparently grown tiresome for Sohn.
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"The one odd aspect," Sohn says, "about this whole thing over the years. 'Okay, so there’s this place, all they do is sell sausages, they play 70s-era punk rock all day and the guy at the counter tells old Don Rickles and Henny Youngman jokes,' and I’d be like, 'Oh, this place is awesome.' And of course I’m the one person that actually can’t go."
So 13 years of slinging sausages six days a week has gotten a little taxing and, at age 52, Sohn says he’s ready to try something new. He has no concrete ideas yet about what that will be, but it won’t be another restaurant.
One thing he does know: He’s wants to see what lunch looks like from the other side of the counter again: "I haven’t been out for lunch in Chicago in a long, long time."
Oh, and if you’re wondering what to try should you make it by Hot Doug’s before October 4, Sohn recommends the classic Chicago-style dog or, of course, the foie gras dog.