Doug Sohn announced this morning that he plans to close Hot Doug’s on October 3rd. No news could hurt Chicagoans more deeply—except, maybe, if a New York developer bought the Hancock Building and renamed it Manhattan Towers.
On one hand, it’s just a hot dog joint. They open and close all the time, especially in Chicago. On the other: Armageddon. Hot Doug’s is the most universally beloved restaurant in Chicago.
Sohn’s “encased sausage emporium” is a special place, of course, because the dogs are damn good. I recall a large knob of foie gras falling off my Sauternes-foie duck sausage on one visit, and landing on the floor, and when I reached down to eat it under the table, I saw a guy across from me doing the same thing. Every morsel was precious. Over the years, Sohn never met a meat he would not encase: Kangaroo. Ostrich. Alligator. Yak. The man gets Chicagoans to eat yak, and love it.
Sohn, a culinary graduate of Kendall College in 1995, was also ahead of the curve. In 2001, “real” chefs didn’t leave the rat race to open hot dog stands. Today, they unveil taquerias and pizzerias and doughnut shops and fried chicken joints with such regularity that we raise our eyebrows when someone decides to open something upscale.
Shortly after the original Hot Doug’s opened at the outer edge of Roscoe Village, I showed up one weekday, just as the place was closing. Sohn took pity on me, and kept the place open just for me. I bought every hot dog on the menu, most of which my wife and I ate in the car. We had forgotten napkins, and it was one of the best meals of my life.
When I heard the space burned down in 2004, I felt ill, but I also nodded in admiration. Hot Doug’s burned out; it didn’t fade away. Then, when it reopened in Avondale, I felt excited but vaguely disappointed, like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement wearing a different number. But in the end, like Jordan, the return only solidified Sohn’s legend.
Good food is one thing. Chicago will forever cherish Hot Doug’s, though, because it made us happy. Sohn always kept the line moving, never lowered his standards, and never stopped smiling. The best thing about getting to the front of the line at Hot Doug’s was getting an audience with the Sohn—a quirky guy who had mastered the art of schmoozing long enough to satisfy every customer without pissing off the person waiting right behind him. That can’t be taught.
So, yes, I’m bummed. Hot Doug’s was the only line worth waiting in in this town. But I’m also thrilled for Doug Sohn, who isn’t selling the joint, and isn’t franchising the joint. He’s closing it to find something else to do, at a time when Hot Doug’s lines and its legend are as long as ever. That never happens. (Cautionary tale: When Jordan came out of retirement again, it ruined everything.)
Years ago, I was with my grandfather at a benefit in the South Loop when we met Sohn’s father, Herb, a local urologist. Nice guy, like his son. The conversation, of course, turned to hot dogs, and I told Herb how much I loved Hot Doug’s, and how thrilled I was to see it written up in the New York Times and Bon Appétit. He could not stop smiling. Then, he could not stop talking. He stood in line at Hot Doug’s, he said, just so he could listen to people talk about Hot Doug’s. That was the kind of power Hot Doug’s held over its followers.
When we finally shook the elder Sohn’s hand and walked away, my grandfather was perplexed by the entire conversation. “It’s just a hot dog stand, right?” he asked. I didn’t know where to start.
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