The case for standing in line

by Сашка

Embrace the wait. It could mean the best meal of your life.

Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s series on travel hacks and hot takes. See how to submit here.

One telltale sign of an outstanding street cart, cocktail bar, cafe or restaurant is the size of the crowd waiting to order. Nothing stops me in my tracks like seeing a 100-yard line spilling out a building and curving around the corner. It’s a foolproof way to find a memorable meal.

This might sound obvious — I consider it a universal rule of travel — but it bears repeating in our instant-gratification society: Anticipation is a powerful appetizer.

In Melbourne, Australia, for example, the reward for standing on the pavement in a graffiti-tagged parking garage in the Central Business District is one of the best Thai meals you’ll encounter in your lifetime.

Outside of Soi 38, a chalkboard sign tells customers “Please wait in line to be seated.” Once you get through, you find a little vestibule with Polaroids of Bangkok street food dishes taped to the wall and a bustling dining room full of colorful metal tables and stools. The place is so popular there’s an annex in the back with more tables and a Thai tuk-tuk planted right on the concrete.

During a trip last year, frosty glasses of beer set the stage for the restaurant’s Ultimate Bowl, a two-person serving of spicy and sour tom yum soup containing treasure after treasure: fried pork belly and shrimp and squid, gleaming scallops and raw egg yolks and pork meatballs. My wife and I were deliriously happy.

Committing to the wait also meant avoiding the endless discussion of where to go that led us into a just-fine place for yum cha on an earlier evening. Tensions may flare when two hangry people are turned away at the door of a full restaurant.

On the same visit to Melbourne, we passed the high-fashion boutiques, towering office buildings and glitzy malls of the CBD to wait in the cold outside Lune Croissanterie. Our time in line gave us a chance to appreciate the street fashion of the Melbourne set. (It’s a city of sneakerheads.) Once inside, I had a flat white that made me understand the national pride in the espresso drink, and a crackly ham and cheese croissant engineered by Formula One aerodynamicist-turned-baker Kate Reid.

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In the United States, standing in line for a shot at a no-reservations score has long sustained barbecue joints (see Snow’s in Lexington, Tex.), pizzerias (L’industrie in Brooklyn is so worth it) and bars (good luck getting into the Front Room at Double Chicken Please in Manhattan). On occasion, a line might mean more hype than substance: Georgetown Cupcake has its haters, and I do not get the fuss over Levain’s giant cookies.

All of the aforementioned businesses have been well-documented in local and international media, each likely to appear in the most rudimentary pre-trip research. When you’re line-spotting on the fly, however, you often turn up something completely unexpected.

On a trip to Mexico City, I approached a street food vendor based on the dozens of people trailing behind it. That brought me to my first chilaquiles torta, a sandwich stuffed with salsa-covered tortilla chips, a fried chicken cutlet and refried beans. The crush of carbohydrates would have never been on my radar.

If you’re a vacation prepper like me — think a pin-clustered Google Maps and dossier-level Google Docs — joining a line is a way to stay present and not overthink every decision. Now you’re a temporary part of the local community. All those sets of feet are a collective vote of confidence. What you’re about to eat is worth it.

Where to go

Our favorite destinations: These 12 destinations are at the top of our wish list for where to go this year, without crowds. In 2023, we explored an Alaskan bear paradise, Brooklyn’s famous pizzerias and a hidden gem in Italy, among other highlights..

Travel like a local: Residents share their favorite places in our top city guides: New Orleans, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City.

National parks: This comprehensive guide has details on all 63 U.S. national parks. For a deep dive into five of the most well-known, you can listen to the Field Trip podcast. Then explore tips from locals for visiting Yosemite, Glacier and Everglades.

Tales from the road: Dolly Parton has opened a new resort at her theme park complex in Tennessee, while “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines have a new hotel in Waco. Road-trippers may be just as excited to see the cartoon beaver at Buc-ee’s, and bargain-hunters should consider a stop at the Unclaimed Baggage store in Scottsboro, Ala.

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