It's strange: walking down the streets of a city, mid-recession, one will often come across what looks like a Deprression-era breadline. But upon closer inspection, it's people waiting for a table at an expensive restaurant.
Serious Eats recently asked readers, how long are you wiling to wait for food? New Yorkers are notoriously prone to lining up for anything in case it turns out to be a can't-miss hot spot (high rents and small spaces don't help) but no one place has a monopoly. Serious Eats mention's North Beach's Dottie's. Or there's Pink's in L.A. Or Delancey in Seattle. Kuma's Corner in Chicago. Georgetown Cupcake. You name a place, there will be people standing around on line to eat.
Of course, some people won't wait in line at all. My grandparents are like this. If they have to wait even five minutes, it's out the door. As a result, we routinely end up at some of the worst restaurants in New York, where they'll frequently look around the deserted, grimy premises with satisfaction and marvel that we can always score a table here while suckers queue up just down the street.
Sure, plenty of people are suckers, and your meal has to be pretty good to justify hour plus waits (although sometimes it's hard to know, one's so ravenous by the time the food arrives.) I used to work at a frankly awful place for whose hygiene I will not vouch and people lined up around the block for overpriced brunch. Meanwhile, the staff all brown-bagged it. And when a place is hyped just for being hyped (cough Magnolia Bakery) it's hard not to wonder at human folly.
Then there are those of us who tread a middle ground: going early, avoiding weekends, but willing and prepared to wait if need be, armed with magazines, iPods and a semi-full stomach. Even then, you choose your battles. There is a famous pizzeria here in New York, in a quite remote neighborhood, in which an elderly pizza master crafts each pie one by one, drizzling it with oil, carefully tearing basil, oblivious to the throng of eager foodies who wait hours for what is generally considered the city's finest. It's something of a rite of passage for pizza-lovers, and the pies are amazing. But 10 years ago, you could walk off the street and get a slice. Now, it's a commitment, a ceremony, a victim and a success story of the foodie hype machine.
I'd be interested to know if those scary Cheesecake Factory-style vibrating disks that start snorting and farting angrily when your table is up have increased or decreased wait times. On the one hand, it's tangible proof that there will be a table. On the other, that there's such a mass of bodies that a lo-fi robot needs to corral you out of the Sharper Image. Is this proof that we're onto something good - or just suckers about to eat some really heavy cheesecake?
How Long Would You Wait In Line for Food? [Serious Eats]