Layover, With Cheese
Photos by Anne FishbeinThey flock to Shula’s 347, the business-flier crowd, the sallow men who inhabit every airline lounge in the country and know their way around an airline bottle of Tanqueray, a no-iron Brooks Brother’s polo shirt, and the back nine of half the golf courses in Ohio. They are the men you shuffle by on your way to tourist-class purgatory, the men with so many frequent-flier miles that even their golden retrievers probably fly first class. They line up at the bar, pride of the Sheraton Gateway Airport Hotel, as they do at the Shula’s in Newark or Miami Lakes, a formidable front line of rumpled blue sports jackets and unbuttoned button-down shirts, seeking solace in a medium-rare strip steak and a bottle of Amstel Light, bliss in a plate of spinach-artichoke dip and a glass of Johnny Walker Black. The filet mignon, extra-aged and beautifully seared, is a gorgeous thing even here. Don Shula, of course, was the coach of the Miami Dolphins in their greatest days, and the number 347 refers to the number of victories he oversaw in his career; the blank-eyed men at the bar are surer of that number than they were of the date of their first wives’ birthdays, and all side dishes are priced at $3.47 in honor of the immortal stat. Two matching Vince Lombardi Trophies, crystal footballs awarding Super Bowl championships to Shula’s Dolphins, glow in a glass case near the front of the restaurant. Giant TVs soundlessly flash SportsCenter except on Mondays, when the Church of Monday Night Football rules the screens.I’m pretty sure that this space, before it went over to Shula’s, was home to Landry’s, another restaurant owned by a former NFL coach. If Shula’s 347 should go south, the hotel could try to attract a branch of Ditka’s, owned by the former Chicago Bears coach, or perhaps Chili John’s, a John Madden favorite that rules the concession lines at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.The business fliers, of course, demand more than ESPN on tap and a decently stocked bar — there must also be a hamburger, preferably a thick, well-garnished burger dominated by the taste of bloody, dripping meat. These guys have eaten at every steakhouse that appears on the top-10 list in every airline magazine, and can knowledgeably discuss the fine differences between Ben Benson’s in New York City and Bern’s in Tampa Bay. Senior White House spokesmen, members of this tribe, reportedly ignored the considerable pleasures of Korean cuisine on last week’s presidential trip, the Washington Post reported, in order to dine at the Seoul branch of Outback. Twice. Filet mignon at Shula's 347 So it was a stunning development when Angeleno magazine named the Hickory Burger at Shula’s 347 the best burger in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Los Angeles is arguably the greatest hamburger town in the country, after all, home to the spartan behemoths at Cassell’s and the baroquely textured lunchroom burgers at Pie ’n Burger, the Kobe-beef juiciness of Cora’s burger to the pastrami-topped spiciness of Jim’s, the chili-drenched monsters at Tommy’s to the Father’s Office burgers smeared with Maytag blue, gruyere, sautéed onions and an applewood-bacon compote. This was not like giving an award to the best hamburger in New York City, which honors overcooked bar burgers and truffle-studded Faberge jewel boxes instead of honestly charred beef — Southern California gave birth to every truly interesting hamburger variation on the planet. (And also to McDonald’s, for which we are truly sorry, but that distinction belongs to another review.)The Hickory Burger at Shula’s 347 is basically an honorable thing, a thick, flat burger made from certified if rather over-handled Angus beef, layered with applewood-smoked bacon, and served with a blizzard of oddly textured chopped cheddar that looks more like the output of a cross-cut paper shredder than like anything resembling cheese. The bun is slightly too big, too bready, like most commercial buns, and the sandwich is oddly heavy for its size, as if it conceals a payload of lead. If you are accustomed to the hamburger aesthetics of either the Succulent or Texture-Intensive schools, you will find Shula’s Hickory Burger a fairly dense chaw.When you finally bite into the Hickory Burger, the sensation is of pure smokiness, not the smack of the grill precisely, but more like the feeling that somebody has painted your tongue with liquid smoke. You have probably encountered smokiness of this sort before at Apple Pan or its illegitimate child Johnny Rockets, but this smokiness is of a different caliber, intense enough to render the smoky bacon almost flavorless in your mouth, the way that Coca-Cola tastes almost bitter when you drink it with a butterscotch sundae. I’m not sure I’ve ever written more than a sentence or two about parking in a restaurant review before, but it must be mentioned that Shula’s is located in an airport hotel, and parking is to airport hotels what gambling is to Atlantic City hotels and the beach is to hotels in Waikiki: basically the reason for their existence. Vast parking lot complexes back up to the major airport hotels pretty much as golf courses used to back up to every hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. What this means in practice is that if you can find somebody at the restaurant to validate your ticket, three hours of valet parking are free, but three hours and one minute of valet parking will cost you 20 clams. If you are naive enough to park in the self-parking lot, you will end up paying a flat $11, with no validation in sight. As is so often the case, that third Bombay martini may well end up costing you even more than the $12.50 charged you by the nice man in the vest. Shula’s 347, Sheraton Gateway Hotel, 6101 Century Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 642-4820. Dinner nightly. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Three hours free valet parking. Main courses $12–$42. Recommended dishes: spinach-artichoke dip, hickory burger, filet mignon.
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