A Burger with a Sense of Place
Dig in with both hands (and plenty of napkins) at one of the Westside’s last great dive bars
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As a neighborhood upscales, the existing residents often suddenly discover they cherish businesses that they may have previously deplored. The dive bar that was a noisy, grungy nuisance acquires landmark status when compared to a pretentious and overpriced lounge; the same happens for the scruffy burger joint when a McDonalds moves in down the street. It’s a natural thing to distrust change, especially given the well-publicized instances when a promised upgrade turns out to be a nightmare.
Newer residents might join those preservationists because the local character is precisely what attracted them in the first place — some idealized dream of a bohemian village in the city. Places of character may have been bulldozed to clear land for the condos and McMansions they just moved into, but the gods forbid that process should continue. Now that they have benefited from the process, it should stop.
By a combination accident and design, Playa del Rey has managed to keep some of its iconic businesses intact. Look north or south along the coast and you’ll see gentrification at its finest, glitzy and upscale new businesses. But here the pricey places like Playa Provisions have been built in a way that suits the character of the neighborhood, and the foot of Culver Boulevard still supports little niche businesses like a tailor shop, used clothing store, and an independent coffee shop, market and liquor store. Among the dining and nightlife options are a modestly priced Mexican restaurant and juice bar, a quirky pan-Asian joint, and two dive bars that have both been there for almost 50 years.
And not least of all The Shack, which is actually the subject of this article.
This iconic surf bar and grill (which is located in an area with the worst surfing waves along the whole of Santa Monica Bay, but that’s not the point) is a landmark even for people who have never eaten there and never intend to, thanks to the eye-catching sign featuring palm trees and a Woodie station wagon with surfboards in the back. If you have ever given any outsider instructions for navigating this area, the phrase, “turn at the sign with the car and palm trees” was probably in these somewhere.
The building under that sign is a dumpy, odd-looking sprawl topped with canvas and corrugated iron awnings, and it looks like it grew organically and unpredictably rather than ever having been designed.
Once you go through the door, you’ll find an exit to the patio on your left and a cash register on your right, with a slightly cozy bar and dining room past that.
There’s a menu on the wall right by the door you just came through, and you may study it, or at least pretend to, for a minute or two. Then you can do what almost everyone who dines here does, and order a Shackburger with your choice of beverage.
If you decide to have a beer, I hope you like the major breweries — if you want a craft brew other than the one or two on tap here, The Tripel is right down the block, and you can go there after you finish your burger.
I should mention that there are other things on the menu, but they’re all either sandwiches or things that go with sandwiches like wings, potato skins, mozzarella sticks, fries, calamari and onion rings.
There’s a chili bowl too, as might be expected from a place that hosts a chili cookoff annually, but the housemade chili here is very mild. There’s a hint of cumin and herbs, but almost no heat — it’s not bad but not outstanding, and best as a topping for a burger or chili fries.
The burgers are offered with all the standard toppings, but the one upon which The Shack’s fame rests is the Shackburger — a flame-grilled quarter-pounder with ketchup, mustard, onion, pickle, lettuce and tomato, topped with a grilled Louisiana hot link.
The Shackburger is a wonderful tasty mess, the slight char of the burger patty and the smoky spiciness of the hot link great with the pickle, ketchup and mustard. It’s a reminder of why these sandwiches conquered the fast food world, and if you order it with the pepper jack cheese instead of the American that is the default, it adds another level of spice and flavor.
The burgers are offered with fries (pretty good) or onion srings (even better), and napkins (essential).
If you still have room for dessert afterward, you have your choice of going somewhere else or having another beer. Most people choose the latter, because by that point in the meal they’ve settled in at one of the Westside’s last great dive bars. The Shack and places like it are constantly imperiled by gentrification and redevelopment, so savor the experience while you can.
The Shack, 185 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey (310) 823-6222 the-shacks.com