What’s Wrong with the Shake Shack?

An urban outdoor restaurant shouldn’t feel like a suburban beach.

As summer brings longer twilights to Manhattan, a gourmet hotdog stand called Shake Shack draws longer lines in Madison Square Park. With a cantilevered and hedge-covered roof, the corrugated lean-to offers broad views across the park’s manicured lawns. Star graphic designer Paula Scher, who made its oversize marquee, calls the building a shrine to “what we want life to be like” in cities. Yet something feels artificial.

Architect Denise MC Lee of SITE Environmental Design says the design aimed to “let the park take over” and the business celebrates the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s urban rescue. The Conservancy started fundraising for public art and tasteful plantings in 2000, when drug dealers roamed the park. After restoring a 19th century statue and redesigning the landscape, the Conservancy teamed with restaurateur Danny Meyer. Together, they persuaded the city to allow a hotdog stand atop an old comfort station. Since its 2004 opening, the Shack has helped the Conservancy’s coffers. And made loyal patrons of the well-heeled young who might otherwise flee on Fridays for the beach. So what’s missing?

Try this thought experiment. Your cousin, a Club Med fan, comes for a visit and can stay for only one meal. You want to show her the stream of shapes, styles and symbols that combine only in the urban outdoors. Witty details and small prices? Shake Shack comes through. Pedestrian rhythm? Shake Shack provides portable chairs and tables. But your cousin won’t see the city’s rich confluence of cultures. While the Shack applies neighboring skyscrapers’ metallic colors to a nostalgic roadside shape, its surroundings feel as placid as a beach enclave. Lee says people mingle here. True. But do this elegant park’s regulars reflect the swirl of cultures and talents of people streaming past on 23rd Street? An urbanistically successful outdoor eatery channels the unique city it occupies, not just one dimension of it. It may need a riskier design. Here are some ideas.

Venturing Out: Can an urban outdoor restaurant feel as carefree as a beachside pavilion while its design honors the city’s cultural mix? Try these exercises.

How can the place become a community center? Habana Outpost: Brooklyn, a solar-powered sandwich place in a crowded but underserved neighborhood, shows free movies and sponsors a flea market in its former auto-repair space. (Habana is sponsoring an urban design tour I’ll cover on External Affairs this summer.) Can surveys reveal the local functions an outdoor restaurant can serve? Can an outdoor restaurant provide playspace? Job training? Gardens and composting?

How can signage use local symbols?
In many cities, immigrants have layered Arabic and Hindi and Congee onto old storefronts. Mombar, an Egyptian restaurant in Queens, graces brownstone pediments with Egyptian icons. The Hester Street Collaborative is using surveys to choose immigrant symbols for street banners in Manhattan’s polyglot Lower East Side.

How can views encompass both landmarks and randomness?
Battery Gardens sits in the southern corner of Manhattan’s Battery Park, offering 270 degrees of harbor at an acute angle to a park path. I got married on the patio. And my wedding portrait’s vital details balance the Statue of Liberty, her torch above whitecaps, with strangers pushing carts and strollers. Each detail elevates the other.

Can you make bustle part of the meal?
Eastern Market, the hub of DC’s suddenly-yup Capitol Hill, sells pancakes and eggs at outdoor tables on weekends amid food vendors’ noisy stalls. What kinds of food (handheld, cheap, do-it-yourself) cohere with busy pedestrian pulse? Do low seats or long awnings channel street flow?

How can your community own the place?
Since you need local sign-off for a permit anyway, why not issue an open call to neighbors? Does a building superintendent play guitar or write one-act plays? Does her niece make a killer sour-cherry cobblers? Can local experts vet or write menus or mix cocktails? How can an urban outdoor restaurant, like a proper city, thrive on cultural and economic exchange?

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