The Ridiculous Rise of Viral Food and the Great Line Apocalypse

Ninety minutes later, a fancy milkshake.
Ninety minutes later, a fancy milkshake. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Not so long ago, one of the more reliable of Platt’s Dining Commandments held that the wisdom of lines was rarely wrong. Back in the innocent pre-Instagram, pre-Cronut era, if a card-carrying gastronaut saw a small riot breaking out on the sidewalk outside of the local doughnut shop, or snaking from the egg stand of the local Greenmarket, he or she joined in. Food lines tended to be shorter in the olden days, and the food obsessives who gathered in them tended to be knowledgeable, like-minded souls. Standing among the faithful outside of a pizza stand in, say, Naples, or a ramen shop in the East Village, you learned valuable tips on where to find other local delicacies around town, and more often than not, after waiting for a civilized amount of time (20 minutes maximum), you would get to enjoy something delicious to eat or drink.

Not anymore. These days, you can’t walk five blocks in Manhattan without stumbling upon a rabble of poor deluded souls, desperate to try some newly viral foodstuff they read about, like the one I encountered near New York’s Soho office the other day, winding outside a restaurant called Black Tap. In case you haven’t heard, Black Tap is a nondescript, formerly anonymous little burger joint on Broome Street that recently began serving a series of festively constructed milkshakes. They blew up on Instagram, then quickly appeared on the Today show. On the cold weekend afternoon I wandered by, the line stretched around the corner and down several blocks. Signs had been placed at the cross streets to dissuade people from being run over by passing vehicles. When I asked a friendly couple in the middle of this scrum how long they’d been waiting for a taste of the famous Black Tap shakes, they gazed up at me with a bright, slightly insane look in their eyes. “We’ve already been here for an hour and a half!” came their giddy reply.

By today’s madcap standards, waiting an hour and a half for the chance to Instagram (and, perhaps less important, taste) a random, brightly colored milkshake is nothing. Scrums regularly form in Williamsburg for so-called “rainbow bagels.” The last time I checked, Dominique Ansel’s original Cronut line in Soho was still going strong, too, although if you want to experience true Cronut madness, the place to do it these days is outside the chef’s new pastry store in Tokyo. The Times just reported on the devoted barbecue loons who for years now have queued up every day at 5:30 in the morning for a taste of the famous brisket at Franklin Barbecue, down in Austin, Texas. And if you feel like frittering away a serious part of your weekend in Hoboken, I suggest you make your way to the original Carlo’s Bakery, of Cake Boss fame, where not long ago my daughter and I waited in three separate lines for well over two hours to sample some cannoli that didn’t taste much better than the ones at your local deli.

Not that the length of the Carlo’s line — “We’re not leaving, Dad” — or even the quality of the cannolo — “I love it! — seemed to affect my daughter’s experience. On the contrary, the Instagram-fueled megalines of today seem to induce a kind of Stockholm syndrome–like zombie effect on their victims. The longer people are herded together in one place (i.e., the longer they’re held hostage), the more likely they are to enjoy (i.e., sympathize) with the baroque milkshake, limited-time-only shrimp burger, or dank cannoli their host (a.k.a. captor) is serving them. The famous Franklin’s line in Austin is a case study in this kind of muddled group psychology, and while I’m sure the brisket is exceptional, I’m also sure you can enjoy some fairly decent brisket in the vicinity (the mecca of butcher-style barbecue, Lockhart, Texas, is a 40-minute drive from Austin) without having to wait for six and a half hours.

So what are Platt’s updated recommendations for negotiating this new era of the megaline? Be careful which line you commit to because once you’ve been sucked into the vortex, chances are you’ll never escape, as I recently discovered at Sqirl in Los Angeles, where I waited about 45 minutes for an (admittedly pretty good) egg bowl. As my daughter can attest, it helps if you actually like the food you’re lining up for. Standing in a food line when you’re a tourist on the road, for ramen in Osaka, say, or pizza in Naples, can still be justified as a worthwhile cultural experience, although if they tell you the wait is more than 45 minutes, I strongly advise you to visit a museum or find another noodle joint. Only a fool lines up in his or her hometown for Greenmarket eggs, or barbecue, or the latest trendy veggie burger for longer than 15 minutes, which remains the optimum amount of time. If you do spy a megaline stretching around the block, complete with instruction signs and line police gesticulating with clip boards, do what I did the other afternoon outside of Black Tap and run the other way.