Shake Shack is a hamburger restaurant in Covent Garden market. It came from New York and it is as needy and angry and angry-needy as America itself; it is, I suspect, quite capable of inventing a bogus reason to invade Burger King while posing as a victim of Burger King’s evil machinations. ‘Good things come to those who wait,’ it says in its promotional material online. ‘See you in the queue!’ (That, if you are English and a man and have never had psychotherapy, is called passive aggression.)
Covent Garden market is full of August tourists; that is, wanderers with no destination, staring blindly at the metal Apples and Chanel. Their spiritual home is the queue at Madame Tussauds but, being tourists, they do not know it.
Here is it, near (or possibly in) that ancient milkshake joint where you could get, for a brief window in space–time, at least according to the London Evening Standard, a breast-milk shake — why didn’t that work out? Because we have burgers for our babies now; burgers, the ultimate entry-level food. Burgers have had a comeback. They are the meat equivalent of John -Travolta in the 1990s; they are Norma -Desmond’s last stand at Paramount studios. People are eating burgers — in Fitzrovia, in St James’s, in Belgravia, even in Mayfair. Why? Is it an ache for simplicity, a sort of cow-themed postmodern rustic movement?
Shake Shack is a small, tidy room with outside seating sprawling on both sides, towards Long Acre and the Thames. The chairs are emphatically cross, expensive and spindly, like the corpse of Anne Robinson: eat burger or hotdog or your own tongue; get out. You queue (the queue is being sold as a kind of unique London tourist experience, which is a proposition so stupid possibly only a cow would do it), stare at the menu, order at the till, and sit; when your order is cooked (or rather assembled), a mysterious electronic rectangle beeps at your table and you collect the food from a hole in the wall, as if you were in a very friendly, and effective prison, or a concentration camp run by KFC. But you are not alone; if you make a mistake or get lost or are simply too infantilised by the experience of living in 2013 to collect your own food without mishap, the staff, very clean and in black, will assist. They are terribly friendly, almost angry-needy-friendly; big smiles, big hair and they all smell of 1,000-year inductions in windowless rooms, where experts in angry-needy--friendly service teach them how to practise smiling at the sort of people who wear baseball caps back to front and never say thank you, because they are tourists who have been tricked into thinking that queuing is, actually, in their interests. No wonder the waiters seem happy. It may be the first time they have seen daylight since 2012. Some of them have travelled from Shake Shack Dubai to be here; the Shake Shack where you can, I explained to one happy waiter, theoretically be arrested for being raped. (If female.)
The food is excellent, and well-priced for Covent Garden. The hotdog is bright red and tasty and it snaps happily under the teeth; its bun, as it should be, is almost all soft sugar, designed to collapse — ah, sugar and its destructive magic! They rave about the cumberland-sausage dog, but it doesn’t work for me here; a cumberland sausage is not fast food. I love the chips, because they seem to be made of Lego — salty, crinkled and fascinatingly yellow. I do not know their precise relationship to the actual potato (if any) and I do not care; to me, it tastes only of salt; the hamburger, too, is fine. This is neoliberalism with salt. I eat it all, and welcome nausea.