The Case Against Queueing Outside Restaurants

Some time ago I went to a popular restaurant for lunch. It was already past my lunchtime, so I was hungrier than usual. This means I had the propensity to lose my cool sooner, which I did the moment I turned into the street where the restaurant stood, behind a bus stop, with its name board concealed by a tarpaulin placed precariously to stave off the cruel sun rays. It was as if the restaurant was ashamed of itself, by hiding its name board, so that no one noticed. Unfortunately, it had something else that gave its name away. I was not expecting a queue outside this restaurant but there it was, snake-like, made of hungry people like me, most of them busy with their phones, some trying to break the queue up because they never learned to form a line during assembly in school, and at least one middle-aged woman trying to grease the headwaiter’s hands, speaking the local language. I was furious but I had to contribute to the queue’s extension because it was already way past the general lunchtime and I was told there are no good restaurants in the area. I gave my name to the headwaiter and he told me I would need to wait as much time as it takes for him to down a whole bottle of brandy and beat his wife into submission. Going by how high he had folded his shirts’ sleeves, I reckoned 10 seconds, but he meant 150 minutes.

And there you have the first reason given by proponents of restaurant queuers to justify the practice. I was told restaurants that attract such serpentine queues during peak eating hours deserve them because there are no restaurants of even a fraction of the standing or food quality of the restaurant in question. Hungry people then flock to such legacy restaurants willingly and always carry kilograms of extra patience when they do like it’s an evolutionarily indigenous product.

Looks like I didn’t get the memo because finding a good eating place in a city like Mumbai (regardless of the area) is as challenging as breathing. You can walk a kilometre in Mumbai and find as many eating joints as there are letters in the word “restaurant”. (It’s 10; keep reading please.)

I can count at least 12 food joints within a kilometre between Dadar Chowpatty and Dadar Railway Station / Google Maps

Now, I admit that not all eating places serve good food and provide a pleasant eating experience. Unsurprisingly, nor do these popular restaurants. A majority of these restaurants where foodies have no qualms queueing up to get inside have served me overpriced food and a ravishing knock to my expectations. I haven’t had many memorable experiences, let alone get a justification for the time I wasted queueing while salivating at the pictures on the menu that is for representation purposes only.

I would rather have better food at a reasonable price somewhere else than queue up outside a restaurant because it has conjured up a fan following just by unloading a whole slide of butter on top of flowy pav bhaji and then be served food that is out to murder my wallet. I would rather order food via Swiggy (and not Zomato) and pay triple the amount. In contrast, I enjoy queueing up at film festivals because that is part of the experience I want to have. It gives me enough time to anticipate and think about the movie, unlike food which will eventually be impaled by my digestive system as if it’s avenging something. I don’t think I have ever stood in a queue anticipating a certain dish offered by an invisible chef.

Yes, I have salivated at images of food that are for representation purposes only but I have come to realize that those are rarely close to reality. In many cases, they are just the first images that Google brings up when you type in the query.

Another major gripe about standing in queues outside restaurants is that the whole exercise makes me feel that my time is not important. Queueing up then is an accessory for the restaurant – as free marketing – and I cannot allow it. It’s also an example of herd mentality or social proof, where humans are wired to imitate others. It’s assumed that if people are flocking to a certain restaurant, it must be superb. The assumptions working here are to be blamed, breaking which is the whole point of this writeup.

A queue outside a popular eatery in Mumbai / Akshay More, Google Maps

I might be better off ignoring these hyped restaurants but there is a certain mystery to them that I can’t escape. Since experimental food is subjective to the tongue, it’s hard to trust a friend on it. You have to be a witness to it and subject yourself to the queue and substandard food to believe it. Reviews on Google Maps are not enough either.

It’s definitely not a coincidence that restaurants where you have to queue up to enter always have limited seats. That’s what the proponents want you to believe. That the restaurant was opened in 1948 by a poor octogenarian and it has maintained its legacy with the good food that it still serves, currently in its third generation. Too bad that its dingy atmosphere cannot be renovated due to the real estate mafia. Not because it’s not a coaching class unit with only 15 admissions. Not because the owner purposely threw away 20 tables and 65 chairs to artificially cook up a human line outside his door.

They refuse to take bookings either. Unlike posh restaurants (the ones that are rated the best by unknown people or a certain tyre company) where you can call up, pay an advance, and pledge one of your parents or both as collateral to make a reservation, legacy restaurants recommended by Reddit users and Instagram influencers don’t have a reservation system. You can’t find them on apps like EazyDiner or Swiggy Dineout, nor can you call them up to reserve a table. London even has a pride of such no-booking restaurants. In these hotels, the queue is the highlight, not the food or the ambience.

One reason I can think of for a no-reservation policy is that it can play with a restaurant’s marketing. If people don’t queue up, how will people like me get attracted to it? How will I wonder that if people are queueing up for it, it must be good? Another is that the restaurants don’t have to worry about no-shows. Although, in their defense, taking reservations does not make sense if it’s a small-scale eatery with low prices. People will quickly grab a bite and skip. Many popular joints I have hinted here are of that kind, so my animosity is purely against large restaurants.

In that same vein, have you ever visited such a restaurant where the manager or head waiter or co-owner is not grumpy and rude? This one time in Goa, I had the head waitress (with the arrogance of someone who is related to the owner) of a cake shop explain to me that I’ll need to wait 15 minutes because the food needed time to cook. It was an awakening to me because I had no idea. Some of her cafe’s online reviews anyway said that it served undercooked food, so how was I to be blamed for expecting my food in seven and a half minutes?

That episode brings me back to the queue I was originally in. It’s common for hyped restaurants to have weird, customer-agnostic rules. Restrictions on how you can pay, a minimum bill amount if you want to dine, and shared seating are a few that immediately come to my mind. The latter, where random people will share a table, is too common in populated cities in India. I would do anything to eradicate it from this country just so people can have food and be awkward in their own company.

The restaurant I was queueing up at had a notice stuck on the wall just above the head of the cashier: Credit card only for bill above 500 (sic). One way to avoid paying the merchant discount rate (MDR) for lower bills, I thought.

It was finally my turn to enter the restaurant. From the starting point of the queue to my seat, the journey felt like I was walking through a busy street where people are sitting instead of walking. It had such a narrow aisle, you’d be actually mistaken for walking up with a bride if you held a stranger’s hand on the way and Richard Wagner’s Bridal Chorus started playing suddenly. This one, it looked like, hadn’t thrown away its tables and chairs but had crammed about 40% more than what the property allowed. The civic officials sitting somewhere obviously had greased hands.

Another common reason brought up by queueing food enthusiasts is the quality of the food served at such hyped restaurants. Yes, you’ll have to wait for 3 hours but the food you get once you’re seated will transport you to another world. You should really try the thali here, but since our appetites are low, let’s have prawns. They put brinjal in it because the owner’s uncle has a brinjal farm in Neral and no one else is buying brinjals these days. It’s called fusion, baby. It’s pretty popular among the restaurant-starved locals here. Here, have some more.

Forget about another world, the inside of this restaurant reminded me of the outside of my office room. Water spots forming a pattern over glass surfaces, used paper napkins lying on the floor, and cutlery that was rated for 1,000 uses but has already been used 100,000 times.

Everyone else around me was eating like they were having the gastronomical experience of their life. They were obviously usuals. It made me wonder whether these folks had ever tried real good food. Or, was it that any food eaten after waiting for hours automatically tastes wonderful? I once tried a famous butter chicken gravy at a popular Delhi joint (without waiting) that cost 3x its normal price. I still think about that gravy from time to time and the level of customary regard that my digestive system gave it. If it was up to me, I would have kept it in my system for at least a week.

Thankfully, the billing experience was unlike what usually happens at such restaurants. This time, the bill did not make me spit out everything I had eaten. No service charge was levied and the bill came up to just above 500. Before anything else could go wrong masquerading as a feature of being popular, I rushed out, smirking at the 30-odd people shuffling outside, some of whom I’m sure had no idea that the chef put brinjals in his prawns.

I don’t queue up outside restaurants these days by principle and there are two reasons why. One, I don’t have to go during peak eating hours to try out a restaurant. A WFH setup means I can walk in for dinner at 6 PM. And two, I have realized that places with queues rarely serve good food or are not worth the time you waste waiting. They’re just popular for the wrong reasons. And looks like I’m not the only one.

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