On the Side | Quite often, imitation is in good taste

Posted: July 05, 2007

As the noon hour approached in New York one sunny day last week we found ourselves famished, and tantalizingly close to Madison Square Park, the southeast corner of which is occupied by a new sensation called the Shake Shack. (Wanna check out the line? Go to www.shakeshacknyc.com.)

It is a sensation because, while it looks a lot like a cedar-gray, early-vintage McDonald's, it patterns its menu of American classics on the real McCoy - the beefy, juicy, loose-packed burgers, and dogs, and crisp fries and rich, chocolate shakes that (before fast food dumbed them down) made this country great.

The burgers are tucked in rolled-down paper collars like they are at the In-N-Out Burger joints in L.A.

The "shack sauce" resembles the best thing in a Big Mac, which is not the meat.

The Chicago dog - a hot dog on a poppy-seed roll dressed with sport peppers, pickle, onion, celery salt, mustard, etc. - well, it's what you'll find on the streets of Chicago.

There are glorious echoes all over the place. That's the whole idea: This is restaurateur Danny Meyer's homage to an all-American standard. And while you can hardly call it fast food - our wait bordered on a half hour - it supplied easily the best-tasting burger I've had in months.

The next day, a curious event began unfolding some 20 blocks to the south, in Greenwich Village, the home of Pearl Oyster Bar, another eatery that pays respectful homage to an American classic - the venerable lobster roll, famed on Maine's coast.

Pearl's owner Rebecca Charles can rightfully claim that she put the lobster roll (and pails of thin-shelled steamer clams) on the map in Manhattan. Before she opened her counter in 1997, there was nothing like it.

At least in New York City. There were, of course, clam shacks dotting the seaside in Kennebunkport, where Charles' family summered for years; and an updated version called the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco that she concedes was a rough model for her place.

But last week, charging that her former sous chef Ed McFarland had meticulously copied her concept at his new Ed's Lobster Bar, down to the white, marble bar and coddled-egg dressing on the Caesar salad, she made a second bit of New York history: She sued in federal court for theft of intellectual property - in essence, culinary plagiarism.

The spat was reported in the New York Times in a front-page story, certain elements of which - given the nature of the topic - I must note have been employed to flavor this column.

Having said that, I'm glad I'm not ruling on the question: I'm a fanatic for Pearl Oyster Bar, gladly having paid $18 over the years for an astonishingly generous heap of sweet, tender lobster mixed with mayo, a dice of celery, a squeeze of lemon and some kosher salt, on a properly buttered and grilled, top-split hot-dog bun.

But where, oh where, do you draw the line between homage and copycat? Everyone piggybacks: Stephen Starr's Buddakan in Philadelphia was a take-off on New York's China Grill, as was the black cod on its menu, cribbed from Nobu in New York. (Talk about full circle: Now a retooled Buddakan has bounced back to New York.)

The list is unending. Susanna Foo's hundred-corner crabcakes and French-Asian cookery have ricocheted through Philadelphia, still finding resonant expression at Nectar in Berwyn, where her former sous heads up the kitchen.

Even Lil' Pete's, the Center City greasy spoon, offers a copy of the bacon-and-shrimp-topped salad once famously served at the late Jimmy Milan's.

So I don't propose to know how you draw the line between "inspired by" and carbon-copy, between tip o' the hat and grand theft, between egregious knock-off and pure original.

While the district court chews this over, though, it might be instructive to have a local field test.

Might I respectfully suggest that a near-replica of Pearl Oyster Bar (or, go ahead, the Shake Shack) open here in Philadelphia, and let us judge for ourselves whether it's too close to a clone.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

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