It's a little-known fact in the restaurant biz: Contrary to the popular adage that location, location, location are the three keys to a venture's success, some seemingly desirable locations are cursed. Take a particularly busy intersection in my suburban hometown northwest of Chicago. It was home to a parade of joints that featured various Chicago-style sausages and brews. My favorite was called Frank'n'stein, but you could drive down the block and get the same fare at a dozen joints.
But equally as important as where your business is located is the concept that fills the space. Back home there was no shortage of venues to grab a dog and suds, and with serious competition in the market from old Chicago standbys such as Portillo's and Super Dog, you'd be crazy to enter the world of wursts without a viable piece of real estate from which to peddle your wares.
The storefront at 1316 E. Cary St. has seen a string of failed eateries in past years. From a solid Italian carry-out to an execrable dining room that lasted about a minute last fall, none has been able to profit long in what should be a prime Shockoe Slip locale.
Enter City Dogs.
This is a great location to offer something the block doesn't have: a good, quick, cheap lunch. Add that this hotdoggery with full bar is a unique concept here, and that should ensure success. The lines I saw at lunchtime this past week attest to this.
More overwhelming than the crowds, though, is the vibrant energy of the tiny transformed space. From the blood-red, textured walls to the glow-in-the-dark green relish, that, like Heileman's Old Style beer, I had thought was illegal to export from my native Chicago, this is an epilepsy-inducing feast for the senses. Two flat-screen TVs show cable news at lunch and football all weekend. The music tends toward loud but unobtrusive rock. It's an eclectic combination that calls to mind what brought me here in the first place: the promise of a classic Chicago dog.
Vienna pure beef dog? Check. Poppy-seed roll? Check. Onions, relish (neon), tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers and mustard? Check. Ketchup? Of course not. The only thing missing was the sprinkle of celery salt. But was I satisfied? Yes, completely, after eating three of them, anyway.
The gimmick behind the name City Dogs is that it offers location-specific creative interpretations (like the Santa Fe with guacamole, jalapenos, salsa and crumbled tortilla chips) and classic renditions (like the aforementioned Chicago). There's also something featuring a Sabrett wiener from a place called New York — or something like that — I've heard they also have something they refer to as pizza there, but whatever.
Among the best that I sampled was the Richmond dog, a Hormel frank marinated in cider vinegar and brown sugar served with chili, onions and mustard. It was good in spite of the lackluster chili, which in the world of dogs should be regarded as nothing more than a condiment. Still, there's some room for improvement here.
The menu also offers chicken and Phillies, burgers and barbecue, but I'd stick to the dogs. The barbecue was really good, but not exceptional. The burgers were uninspired — apparently frozen preformed patties. The real reason to come here is to get your dog on.
There's another reason, too — the service is exceptionally friendly and professional. The real test of service comes when you have a request that requires servers to think. Like when you say, “I'd like to place a to-go order, but I refuse to take those Styrofoam boxes.” The response indicates whether they're truly interested in earning your business. They can package your order in foil and parchment, as they did in this case. They can also accept your request to use the affordable paper containers that are now on the market and pass the suggestion along to the owner, as they did. We'll see if they implement the suggestion.
Or they can stare at you as if you're from another planet rather than being interested in saving this one, as they did at one of the aforementioned businesses that failed in this same location.
City Dogs may be the best bet to break the curse at 1316 E. Cary. Let's hope so. Because as we've just seen back home in Chicago at 1060 W. Addison, some curses are hard to break. S
City Dogs ($)
1316 E. Cary St.
Opens daily at 11 a.m.
Closes weeknights at midnight, at 3 a.m. Friday-Saturday