Fine dining has embraced the hot dog

“No one had ever reacted to anything I served them better than they reacted to that hot dog," Will Guidara said

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published May 8, 2024 12:45PM (EDT)

Hot dogs with assorted toppings (Getty Images)
Hot dogs with assorted toppings (Getty Images)

One of my all-time favorite food memories is going to The Hot Grill (and its now-defunct sister restaurant, The Rascal House) with my dad and brother. My brother and I would often bring our own Mountain Dews from home — do not ask me why — scoot into one of the corner booths under the TV, and settle in as our dad went to the counter to order our food. 

The Hot Grill, a real local stalwart burger-and-dog “joint” with fervent, voracious fans, specializes in deep-fried hot dogs “all the way,” with their traditional, secret recipe chili sauce, chopped onions and yellow mustard. 

The people who work the counter have their own parlance, shouting over the din of the restaurant to the cooks in the back, frantically cooking up tons of food for the enormous amount of customers always packed into the eatery. My dad would then round the corner with tons of food stacked atop styrofoam platters and we’d all eat up, happily dipping and dunking, drowning in used napkins to clean our chili-sauce-streaked-fingers. 

As a child, I sneered at this, instead opting for their amazing cheeseburgers with the same sauce, often with onion rings and fries and my Mountain Dew (I’d sometimes also opt for their papaya milkshake because I thought it was such a unique offering at a New Jersey hot dog place). But at some point in my teenage years, I thought I'd try a hot dog "all the way" — and I haven't looked back since.

Of course, I absolutely love them on the grill in the height of summer. In the 90s, my mom would serve us macaroni-and-sprinkle-cheese with sliced hot dogs and that became a cherished weeknight meal. She also used to bring us home "Italian hot dogs," which were standard hot dogs in big, fluffy buns with fried potato rounds, peppers and onions. They were stellar. 

For years, though, I think I was still dismissive of hot dogs, thinking of them as a “lower” protein option, but when I think of their presence in my life and in my meals, I realized their importance. Coincidentally, as I’ve grown to really appreciate the hot dog, so has the broader culinary world. 

For instance, the most recent "Top Chef" episode featured hot dogs in a starring role — and both hot dog dishes were declared two of the best of the week. Cheftestant Soo's, inspired by a Korean corn dog, was a french-fry-battered hot dog with wasabi and jalapeño mayo. Meanwhile, competitor Danny served a bacon-wrapped hot dog with cabbage and beet relish. Soo came out on top, but the judges all agreed that Danny’s was excellent, too. The notion of hot dogs celebrated on "Top Chef" may at first seem contradictory — but it shouldn't. 

We need your help to stay independent

Of course, let’s be clear: Hot dogs are not a prime protein choice. That said, they also inherently contain a certain iconography and nostalgia. Take for example the magical allure of a NYC hot dog cart: the steam, the sauerkraut, the relish, the gigantic jugs of ketchup and mustard, the soft, pliable, warmed rolls. 

So to place hot dogs in a “fine dining” context has an inherent high-brow-low brow dichotomy that many have enjoyed tinkering with in recent years, at both high-end restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, hifalutin hot dog carts and more.

One particular example is courtesy of the (unfortunately now-closed) Mischka, Alex Stupak's Midtown restaurant, which garnered scads of coverage and lots of chatter over its $29 hot dog, complete with headlines like Robert Sietsema's “I Hate That I Loved the $29 Hot Dog,” published in Eater in May of last year. "To Stupak’s credit, the hot dog exudes a pungent hot dog taste,” Sietsema wrote. “There are no extraneous flavors here, no duding up of the dog with funny ingredients or novel cooking methods. This frank has not been Cryovaced, nor is there a speck of ketchup in sight." 

Stupak's hot dog instead came with "an artist's palette of sauces," which the diner could then decide on how to use. Sietsema also wrote that "it refused to lie flat, glistening with fat in its snappy natural casing, crammed into a freshly baked potato bun of perfect fleecy texture and density. It’s giant." At the New York Times, Pete Wells called it “a highbrow-lowbrow stunt right out of Jeff Koons, it’s the star dish at one of the year’s most inventive restaurants.”

Speaking of highbrow-lowbrow stunts, there’s a story restaurateur Will Guidara, who was the co-owner and operator of Eleven Madison Park at the time, likes to tell, including in a 2022 TedTalk. It’s about how he once “overheard a table of food-obsessed vacationers lamenting the fact that despite going to all of the city’s finest restaurants, they hadn’t had time to get a regular New York hot dog." 

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

So, Guidara decided to actually run outside, buy a hot dog for $2 and serve it to the table at one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants so they could have that iconic experience. Guidara said “No one had ever reacted to anything I served them better than they reacted to that hot dog." 

While writing this up, I thought of a hot dog that I believe I once ate at a restaurant. It had a pillowy, very tall brioche bun filled with some sort of savory cream to “anchor” the hot dog atop it. It was then decorated in dollops of various colorful sauces, purees and aiolis and then garnished with Brunoised and pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and the like. I realize now that I may have possibly just inexplicably conjured this image in my head? Who knows — but it sure sounds good.

So no matter if you want a chili dog, a NYC dog, a simple boiled hot dog, or you want to try out a plant-based version in your air fryer, the hot dog is a humble protein that deserves lots of respect. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

MORE FROM Michael La Corte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fine Dining Food Hot Dog New York City Restaurants Sausages Streetfood Top Chef