The proliferation of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene can be partly attributed to Stephen Starr. After tackling New York City and Atlantic City, he seems to have found himself back in the City of Brotherly Love. As his empire grows to encompass everything from soul food to steakhouses, he unabashedly draws inspiration from his most revered peers. His recent venture, Parc, a French bistro on Rittenhouse Square, is an obvious interpretation of Keith McNally’s Pastis or Balthazar. Starr openly toured the top pizzerias in New York and New Haven for his own Neapolitan pizza joint, Stella. This summer, in an obvious replication of Danny Meyer’s celebrated Shake Shack, he opened SquareBurger (view), a burger stand in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square just off I-95.
The small SquareBurger shack is nearby the Franklin Square Fountain.
SquareBurger is next to a beautiful fountain, but it’s in an area devoid of local foot traffic, which may explain why there were only five people there on a sunny Saturday. While there are differences between Shake Shack and SquareBurger, both pay their due to burgers and frozen sweets. Ultimately, it comes down to a direct comparison between Starr’s Classic Cheeseburger and Meyer’s ShackBurger, between a SquareBurger’s Classic Shake and Shake Shack’s Hand-Spun Shakes and Concretes. The question is, can Starr top Meyer?
Left, ShackBurger. Right, SquareBurger’s Classic Cheeseburger.
A ShackBurger ($4.75) sits in a soft potato roll with yellow American cheese, Shack sauce and a layer of lettuce and tomato as thick as the patty (pickles and onions, upon request). Two things make a Shack Burger delicious: the special blend of Pat LaFrieda beef (ground daily and cooked medium), and the tangy, creamy sauce.
SquareBurger’s classic cheeseburger ($4.75) is also on a potato bun, but with pickles, onions, ketchup, mustard and white American. SquareBurger’s chopped pickles and onions are reminiscent of chopped onions on a McDonald’s burger— similarly, there’s ketchup and mustard. Ultimately, it’s about the burger, and SquareBurger’s patty is almost twice the size of Shake Shack’s. A cross-section (right) revealed perfectly medium rare meat. One bite had juices running down my arms.
Left, Shake Shack’s French Fries. Right, SquareBurger’s Classic French Fries.
Ah, Shake Shack’s French Fries ($2.75). Their crinkly, crispy coating is perfect for catching excess ketchup and inside they’re hot and airy. Do fries get any better?
SquareBurger makes a valiant effort with Classic French Fries ($2.00). Their near identical shapes and plentiful salting again recall McDonald’s, but visible skins lend a rustic, homemade flair. While you have to be into Shack Shack’s spuds, skinnier fries are also easier to pile on a burger.
Left, The Cake Shake ($4.75) at SquareBurger. Right, Crème Brûlée shake from Shake Shack.
Nothing bad can be said about Shake Shack’s hand-spun Shakes. Their thick frozen custard makes for fantastic shakes, and the monthly array of options are always interesting (Salted Caramel and Crème Brûlée are two insanely delicious examples).
But when it comes to catering to your clientele, Stephen Starr plays to nostalgia, hitting it out of the ballpark with The Cake Shake: Philadelphia’s own Butterscotch Krimpet Tastykakes, blended with vanilla ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and butterscotch. An extra-thick straw is wide enough for the larger bits of butterscotch-coated cake to seduce the mouth into sublime happiness.
And hey, on a beautiful day in Philadelphia, not to have to wait in line for an hour, that’s gotta count for something.