Standing Room Only: The Doughnut Vault

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

The Doughnut Vault

400 North Franklin Street Chicago, Illinois 60654 (map);
The Short Order: Remarkable, freshly made doughnuts.
Want Fries with That? No sides, but there is coffee for a dollar.
How Many Seats? No seats and no place to stand.

If you're like me, you've probably experienced the glory of The Doughnut Vault thanks to some caring friend who, out of the kindness of his or her heart, brought back a box of expensive doughnuts to share for dear friends. (These people are saints.) Of course, as soon as you have one, you start plotting a way to have more. And waiting on random acts of kindness is a frankly inefficient way to get this done.

Unfortunately, due to the odd hours and extremely long lines, The Doughnut Vault is not the most convenient place to visit. It opens at 8:30 a.m. during the week and closes whenever the stock is out, which can be just a few hours later. Located around the corner from Gilt Bar in River North, The Doughnut Vault is also tucked into one very small room with no seats or real counter space.

It's a new breed of stand, so I felt obligated to at least see this place that had absolutely no seats and was immensely popular. That's my excuse. Well, that and I had a doughnut addiction to feed.

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The Doughnut Vault is both smaller and more charming than I imagined. Those long lines make a lot more sense now that I realize only a handful of people can literally fit inside at any one time. I mean, just four people would cause the line to spill out the front door. Luckily, I timed my visit to avoid as many of those people as possible.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, owner Brendan Sodikoff related the "secret" to avoiding lines: "10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. is when we usually have most, if not all, of the doughnuts, and there are only about two or three people in line." I showed up precisely as instructed, and, sure enough, only one person stood between me and the antique cash register. Plus, all of the doughnuts were still available.

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The menu is blessedly short, but tough decisions remain. There are three varieties: Buttermilk Old Fashioned ($2.00), Gingerbread Stack ($3.00), and Glazed ($3.00)—which you can get in chestnut, vanilla, or chocolate. For my inaugural visit, the only sensible thing to do was try one from each category—an obscene amount of food, but I did plan to eventually share. (Because giving Doughnut Vault doughnuts is almost as good as eating them.)

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The Buttermilk Old Fashioned is the most beautiful and unexpected offering. The cake-style specimen is tender and soft, and miles away from the pasty kind that stick in your teeth. It's amazing to know that this style can taste like this.

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The Gingerbread Stack is also a cake style, and while also moist and delicious, it's not quite as revelatory. Though I will say in some tests later on in the day (okay, so I did eat at least half of these doughnuts) I found that they were the superior coffee dunking variety. Now you know.

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As great as the cake-style can be, it's hard to deny the astonishing Glazed yeast-style doughnut. Over-sized and hard to handle, it is still pillowy and exhibits a strange lightness even though it is completely covered in sugar. It makes no sense in the best possible way. The vanilla glazed one is great, but there is something about the chestnut variety that is even more addicting. I still haven't tried the chocolate, though I wouldn't turn down a handout.

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What's strange about the offerings is that they are both technically flawless and totally idiosyncratic. They showcase an obvious culinary-minded take on the breakfast food, but they have their own character. That's really hard to do.

Of course, I am not the first person to rave about The Doughnut Vault, and I don't think I'll be the last. But it's great to see that though the initial surge of interest led to extreme hype, all along the doughnuts were worth it.