Do you queue for food?

Holidaying in San Francisco recently, it struck me how often the discourse about obtaining or finding good food is about how long you might have to wait to be served (or seated). The catalyst for this article was when we walked past an ice-cream parlour with a loooong queue down the street, and then a bakery which was packed to bursting point. For me, it was the opposite of what enjoying food should be about.

We had visited the Bi-Rite Creamery the night before and were – luckily – spared any queue. The young, hip staff were helpful and enthusiastic, while the flavours (of which we were permitted many tastes) were variable, from mundane to outstanding. Good, but we would never have queued around a neighbourhood block for it.

When we came to Tartine Bakery & Café, a block or two further on, the outdoor queue was more modest, but inside it seemed like a bazillion people were waiting to be served. The din escaping through the entrance was impressive. Why would you sit in a deafening space, cheek by jowl and buttock, for a Sunday lunch?

A few days earlier we had joined the lunchtime queues at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market. Long, long queues had formed in front of the pork-roll stand, the organic fried rice stand, the taco stand, etc etc. We weren’t sure if the food justified the queuing: the tacos were fresh and interesting, the fried rice distinctly dull. Maybe the pork rolls were truly deliciously long-queue-worthy. Maybe.

In Berlin (yes, change of country), on a cold and rainy evening we saw a queue of fifty people for a vegetarian kebab stand (Mustafas Gemüse Kebap, Mehringdamm), yet online reviews generally describe it as severely overrated and taking a bloody long time.

For me, a food experience should be enjoyable not just because of the food. There’s little joy in queuing twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes for a meal, when few meals are so delicious as to outweigh another more comfortable choice. I’d rather go to Chat Thai or Mamak in Sydney at 4.30pm than queue at conventional lunch or dinner time! I walked past a queue of fifteen people out the front of Shanghai Village in Melbourne last week. Maybe they’d all been reading Urbanspoon (rather than Eatability). Are cheap, cheap dumplings reason enough to queue for a while?

Last Sunday I lunched at Chef Lagenda in Newmarket, where there is often a wait, as with its neighbour Laksa King. I very much enjoy the food at both places, though the noise and wait can often be off-putting enough to push me round the corner to Chilli Padi.

There are only a few things I’ll consider queuing for more than about 10 minutes for: (1) superb patisserie from Pierre Hermé, Gérard Mulot, Pain de Sucre, or (2) macarons from Pierre Hermé or Ladurée, (3) fresh pasteís de nata from the Antíga Confeitaria de Belém, (4) some tourist trap I’ve been misled into believing is awwwwwesome, and (5) the last best hope for acceptable nourishment in a wasteland of fast food chains.

Now I know that many people do like to queue (or pack themselves in) for the newest or most novel or prettiest or most hyped, and sometimes even something outstandingly tasty, but if you are a happy queuer why does that inconvenience not deter you? How many times has the eating been so wonderful as to justify the wait, the noise or the squeeze-me-in experience?

11 thoughts on “Do you queue for food?”

  1. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I wouldn’t queue I’m afraid, not when there are so many pretty good options to be had around Melbourne town anyway. If I can’t book a table, I’m clearly just not hip enough to stand around and wait anyway, I would look completely *wrong* and that is just fine and dandy by me.

    The last time I remember consciously queueing for a table was decades ago. When I was a young thang first experiencing the world of eating out. I grew up in a family who dined out only for very special occasions like major birthdays you see. Going out with my mates was a whole new thing. Anyway, I digress – where did we queue because they didn’t take bookings? DENNY’S! Enough said really?!

  2. Five minutes max – and that usually means the time it takes to clear a table. I’m with Cody – in Melbourne, for every queue-crazy trendo joint there’s at least one other fuss-free alternative that’s cheaper and sometimes better, too.

  3. HI Duncan,
    Nice post(long time betwwen drinks though?) Maybe its got something to do with just being around people? We are after all(well most of us) social creatures.
    This might be a long bow to draw but maybe the countries you mention have queuing sewn into their DNA having known hunger, war and depression on a scale that we in Oz had not experienced. I’m not saying we weren’t exposed to those things but we are a relatively new country in the scehmes of things.
    We are blessed with space in Australia and perhaps its got a little to do with this notion, we value it so much that queuing seems uncomfortably foreign?

  4. In teenage years, I hated queuing for clubs, and eventually, I’d never join a queue that I thought would take longer than ten to fifteen minutes to clear. It is the same with restaurants.

    But queues are good for businesses. The old adage that if a restaurant is full, then it must be good, works twice as well when there is a queue going out the door. And in a weird twist of the human psychology, the longer that someone is in a queue, the less likely they are to walk away. I also suspect that people will spend more with the thought process that, “Well, I’ve waited 90 minutes for the table, I don’t want to do that again, so let’s make the most of it” and they order more food or the more expensive dishes.

    Mind you, the longest I’ve ever had to queue for anything was the 10 or so hours it took for me to get my Grand Final tickets in the late 90s. But I’ll file that under “exceptional circumstances”.

  5. Queuing is the American way. Pretty much everywhere in S.F. with strong word of mouth has long queues as U.S. folk like to go to “the best”, rather than the very good. It’s was nuts around the dot com boom in 2002, with yuppie dot-commers having fights over their postion in the queue. My wife and I ended up avoiding the well know places and just ate in the neighbourhood.

    Also, it should be noted, that a lot of S.F. restaurants reserve a portion of their tables for walk-ups. Zuni’s (with that roast chicken and bread salad) had – I think – something like 20% of the tables and the entire bar reserved for walk-ups. This might encourage queuing since you head there on the off chance of a table, and stay because you can’t be bothered moving on. Some take it even further, like the place on Geary (Pacific Cafe?) that hands out free wine while you’re waiting for your table.

    If you want to see the AU equivilent, then check out the queue at Cicciolina’s on a Friday night.

  6. @Coby: Oh I absolutely LOVE that it was Denny’s that you were queuing at. I probably queued for Pizza Hut in my student days!

    @Kenny/Coby: yes, that’s what fascinates me… in the CBD in particular there are sooo many choices, yet people will queue even in the face of doorbitches or the prospect of more-hype-than-delish inside.

    @Steve: that’s slightly longer bow than expected;) There must be cultural things in the mix for sure (though western Germans, for instance, generally don’t queue willingly, for instance).

    @Daniel: so true that a queue can be great from a business perspective. (And isn’t everything footy “exceptional circumstances” for you? 😉 )

    @Peter: great perspective on SF in particular. Thanks. I think the new-is-best thing is always interesting because you have to wonder if people have any memory of what they really liked – if they really liked something, why don’t they want it again, for instance? Restaurateurs lament the decline of the “regular” customers.

  7. @Duncan

    Interestingly, I read a study some while ago where they found that most people who visit a restaurant don’t remember what they ate, or what they thought of it. I’ve never been sure how to read that. Are restaurants fundamentally a fashion industry, where out main concern be able to claim that we’ve been? Or is it a social occasion, and we’re focused on who we went with? Since I read the study I’ve been impressed by the few restaurants where I remember the food. Attica gets top marks here, and there’s also been a few local places in Elwood that we keep going back to (but we’re missing Osaka since it shut).

  8. I rarely queue for food, indeed, I deliberately coerced 10 workmates to come with me to Mamasita so that we wouldn’t have to wait to get in.

    That said, I did wait at Auction rooms once, but only because it was for a first date. Otherwise, unless the wait is shorter than 5 minutes, it’s not worth it.

  9. @Peter: doesn’t surprise me at all! I know that there are few dining experiences which have been so delicious as to stick in my memory. I can remember the ambience or the waiter or the impressive presentation and technique, but rarely the taste of the dishes.

    @Sophie: I love the mercenary approach to non-queuing;) Well done!

  10. I rarely queue for food, unless it’s a “well I’m here already, I’d really like to try this place / eat here again, I guess I can wait a bit” kind of deal. My most memorable time would be at Dadong in Beijing, though there were seats in the waiting area where we could watch the ducks being roasted, so even though it took about 20 minutes to get a table, it was a comfortable wait. It was totally worth it, too, particularly since it was a now or never situation, and the food was delicious. I agree though that many places don’t warrant the queues they command, and I mostly prefer to go somewhere else if I have to wait awhile.

  11. If you queue then you are complicit in the long waiting times for food to arrive at the table, never good when dining with the family. The food will never be amazing enough to counter the wait.
    Queues are for the young who wish to appear hip & happening.
    As far as remembering the taste of the dishes, if its a perfectly executed meal, how could you not. Because if its great, then I want to be able recreate the magic for myself.
    @peter mentioned Zuni, 20 years ago I had the most perfect Fish dish at a table in the kitchenthere. I’ve also stolen Cicciolinas celeriac mash, must have been prior to the queues.

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