In New York City, lines are a way of life. There’s a line at the movie theater, for the bank, in the laundromat, and at the supermarket. In fact, one aspect of being a New Yorker, a friend observed, is that we are willing to wait for anything. Today, the phenomenon extends to restaurants and bakeries, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1990s when I started writing for Village Voice, the only lines I remember were tourists waiting to get into historic pizzerias like Lombardi’s and John’s of Bleecker Street. But how did lines in front of newly-opened restaurants become a thing here, and what does it mean?
The first gastro-line of the modern era formed in front of Magnolia Bakery in the West Village. It was motivated by a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, in which Carrie and Miranda luridly discuss their love lives while Carrie scarfs down smallish, heavily-frosted cupcakes — spawning a cupcake revolution across the city that continues to this day. In the months after the episode aired, lines gradually began to wrap around Magnolia’s corner store and down West 11th Street, filled with customers desperate for the now-notorious cupcakes.
Another notable modern line materialized at our first branch of Tokyo ramen chain, Ippudo, when it opened in 2008. This line became such a nuisance that the management started taking down names and phone numbers, dispersing diners, and calling them when their tables were ready. A person without a cell phone was screwed. Is a virtual line still a line? Just ask those who fidgeted in East Village dive bars for hours on end waiting for their summoning calls.
One of the most famous food lines began three years ago at the Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho. The most striking feature of the Cronut-queue was how early people were willing to arrive. Every morning the line began to form around 6 a.m. — cut off when the bakery opened and the day’s small supply of the hybrid croissant-donut vanished. It was clearly a manipulated phenomenon. But what was it about Cronuts that engendered such enthusiasm? Could any pastry — consumable in less than a minute — be so delicious that it merited a long wait?
Soon enough I found myself standing in food lines — and not just because it was my job to report on the wildfire popularity of newly-opened establishments. I stood in line for chicken sandwiches at Fuku and for sustainable sushi at Sugarfish. I waited an hour for the namesake at Umami Burger and half that time for the fried chicken at Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken. I lingered for sea urchin udon at TsuruTonTan, vegetarian burgers at Superiority Burger, raw fish at Pokeworks, round pastries at a Federal Donuts pop-up, and green papaya salad at Somtum Der.
Many of the lines eventually vanished. Dairy Queen on West 14th Street commanded long ones when it first debuted, but now the place stands half-empty. These days you can waltz right into TsuruTonTan and be out in 45 minutes. And the lines at the just-opened Tim Ho Wan are reported to be dwindling. As proof that a line forms at a restaurant’s death as well as its birth, I noticed a few days ago that lines have appeared outside Carnegie Deli in Midtown, where service ends Friday.
The longest line I ever stood in was at Ichiran in Bushwick. My wait was slightly over two hours, with another 20 minutes spent on a bench in the lobby before I was seated. As I waited to secure one of Ichiran’s famed private booths, I saw what appeared to be company executives trolling up and down the line gleefully, making videos on their phones.
When I got inside, I discovered the place was only partly full, leading me to believe that forcing folks to stand outside was a planned part of Ichiran’s promotional strategy. A line guarantees attention from the media, causing the line to swell, fanned by the flames of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — which make modern lines appear sooner and grow faster — as more foodies step forward to become human billboards. Those passing in the street shake their heads and wonder, “Could the food really be that good?”
Sometimes it is — but often it isn’t. But even when the food proves disappointing, standing in line is not necessarily a bummer. There is a camaraderie among participants that allows lines to become convivial places, with a shared embrace of a common battle. Wry jokes are offered to proximate strangers, observations made, web tips repeated, and email addresses exchanged. When the objective is achieved — finally getting into the establishment — a glowing sense of accomplishment prevails.
For the people who populate culinary queues, standing in line is all about bragging rights. Waiting to eat at Ichiran or Tim Ho Wan and then talking about it confers culinary status, and with it a feeling of belonging to an exclusive club. And the conclusion is inevitable that, in spite of the discomfort, New Yorkers often stand in line not because they have to, but because they enjoy it.