One hungry writer ruins a sunny Saturday to find out whether standing in the cue at Howlin’ Rays, Sqirl, Pink’s, Milk Bar and other restaurants, is worth the wait.
I text my friend, Ellen, on a late Friday afternoon. “You used to go to Sqirl a bunch, right? Do you know when it gets super busy on weekend mornings?”
“Yep. It’s always busy on the weekends,” she responded. “I would go when it opens at 8 a.m. The line is always obnoxious, but the food is good. Don’t go if you’re going to get there after nine.”
“OK great! So it’s prob worst around 10-ish?” I text back.
“Perfect. I’ll go then.”
Opening a restaurant is, of course, a very risky endeavor. Hats off to any proprietor who has had success, let alone the elite few Los Angeles eateries that routinely inspire long lines of eager customers stretching down the sidewalk.
And yet, after seeing the same businesses sport the same long waits for years on end, it’s tough to suss out whether these lines are necessary evils or cynical marketing ploys. Who is waiting in them? Dedicated locals? Tourists? Is the experience grueling or fun?
I decided to ruin a perfectly good Saturday finding out. My plan: Stand in as many enormous lines in a single day as I can — at minimum Sqirl, Burgers Never Say Die, Howlin’ Rays, Pink’s Hot Dogs and Milk Bar. I’ll eat an entire meal at each location, get the full experience and determine who exactly is standing in these lines.
Breakfast at Sqirl (Wait time: 20 minutes)
I arrive at Sqirl, East Hollywood’s uber-popular brunch spot and flagship gentrification outpost, at 10:05 a.m. Dedicated as I am to getting the full going-out-to-brunch experience, I show up slightly hungover.
The line’s already out the door, stretching down to the corner, but not yet wrapping around it. Even so, the vibe is altogether relaxed. Folks chit-chat quietly. Sqirl often gets pegged as a hipster hotspot, but the crowd feels closer to hipster-tinged yuppies: performance fleeces and fancy sweats edge out the statement hat-wear.
While on the sidewalk, the line nearly doubles in size behind me, but I end up breezing through. I only wait for 20 minutes. I inhale my order of delicious Rainbow Ricotta Toast at the communal table situated in the center of the bustling cafe, and despite our intimate quarters, no one wants to talk to me.
Lunch at Burgers Never Say Die (Wait time: 30 minutes)
Following a brief CVS pitstop for Pepto Bismol, I make my way to Burgers Never Say Die, the backyard pop-up burger joint turned social media phenomenon turned brand-new brick-and-mortar eatery in Silver Lake. Lines two hours-long were a common occurrence during BNSD’s D.I.Y. days and its soft open earlier this year. Wait times vary now that they’re open five days a week, but its continued popularity still finds them selling out of burgers regularly.
When I arrive, the line is about 15-20 people deep. The crowd’s demographic leans male. Specifically males in standard-issue bro uniforms: basketball shorts, hoodies, baseball caps. There’s a muscle-y dude in a Flat Earth T-shirt and I can’t tell if it’s ironic. The two crypto-bros in front of me breathlessly attempt to one-up each other in an endless conversation that includes the phrases “blockchain,” “paradigm shifts” and “monetary velocity.”
The staff is super charming and, all told, I only wait in line for 30 minutes. As I pound my burger and fries in the parking lot, I start getting cocky about how easy it will be to zip through the rest of my stops today. I am a fool. Because next up is Howlin’ Rays.
Dinner at Howlin’ Rays ( Wait time: 1 hour and 43 minutes)
Lines at Howlin’ Ray’s, the smash-hit, Nashville-style hot chicken counter in Chinatown, have been so long for so many years that one entrepreneurial individual actually launched a service in which people can pay him to wait in line for them. He stopped once Ray’s publicly discouraged this.
The gargantuan Howlin’ Ray’s crowd snakes through Far East Plaza, an outdoor Chinatown mall. Ray’s’ Twitter feed currently estimates an hour and a half to a two-hour wait, and it takes me a full 45 seconds just to walk the length of the line. It’s as loud as it is long — hundreds of simultaneous conversations bounce off the walls and low ceilings creating a cacophonous din. I pop my head into a few of the other shops to get a sense of how the neighbors feel.
“Is this a nightmare?” I ask the person manning the counter at another eatery, gesturing towards the line. The employee wills a frayed, defeated smile, like I’m vacationing in a dystopian police state and just asked them what they think of the Great Leader.
They respond diplomatically, “It’s a sight to behold.”
By now, the two meals I slammed within three hours are beginning to take their toll. My head hurts and a stomach ache creeps in. I get in line for Ray’s at 1:37 p.m. Ten minutes later, I scribble in my notepad, “I’m gonna puke?” I’m fading, but everyone else seems to be doing OK. The buzzing crowd is refreshingly, surprisingly diverse: couples, teenagers, grandparents, a huge cross-section of ethnicities and languages. It is as Los Angeles as possible.
Two small children run around the plaza playing, then settle down in the saddles of a nearby coin-operated kiddie horse ride machine. Without saying a word, a random teenager in line walks over and drops a few quarters in the coin slot for them. The horses thrum to life.
The teenager is K.D. Aulawmea, a high school junior here with his father, Eugene. They’re of Samoan descent and live in Lancaster, but come downtown to shop and hit Ray’s once or twice a month. It’s a father and son ritual. They dig the whole experience.
“You look around, there’s so many different cultures here. You got Asian, white, black, Hispanic,” Eugene says warmly. “All for a fried chicken sandwich.”
I wait in line for one hour and 43 minutes but stay sane because Eugene and K.D. let me hang out with them. We pass the time bullshitting. It’s nice and it occurs to me that this is exactly the kind of neighborly experience I almost never have.
The staff at Ray’s blitzes me with hospitality once I make it to the front. Benevolent bro greeters throw fistbumps and handshakes my way. One compliments my jacket and another my beard while tossing an extra box of chicken and fries into my bag. Only later do I realize this highly-personalized interaction is just the result of years of expertly dialed-in customer service, which is a little painful to admit because, honestly it really is a great jacket.
I demolish most of my gigantic sandwich and fries, now my third full meal of the day. Emotionally, I feel resolved, having caught a glimpse of how communal waiting in these lines can be. Physically, I’m falling apart. Six hours deep, I’m both shivering and sweaty, exhausted but violently over-caffeinated, certain all my vital systems are on the verge of a meltdown. While sitting in the backseat of my rideshare, I write in my notepad “3:56 p.m. – Gonna shit this Lyft?” All told, it is the perfect moment to wrap up this little adventure.
But it’s not over.
I still have to go to Pink’s.
Second Dinner at Pink’s Hot Dogs (Wait time: 47 minutes)
It feels so tired to take potshots at Pink’s Hot Dogs, the no-frills La Brea hot dog stand that has inexplicably inspired long lines for decades, but I am hardly the only person in line who finds this experience depressing.
The amount of fresh California-themed apparel donned by my linemates suggest a heavy tourist presence. The more telling detail is the look of quiet resignation on everyone’s faces. There is virtually no chatter among the crowd, save for people flatly naming the items they plan to order. Few smiles. Just dead eyes. At one point, an open-air TMZ tour van drives past, and we catch a glimpse of another set of imprisoned tourists. They stare blankly at us and vice versa. Like we’re all pets passing each other on our way into the veterinarian’s office.
I wait in line for 47 minutes. It’s now nearly 6 p.m. I take my tray out back to the dimly lit patio area, which essentially amounts to a bunch of low-cost plastic outdoor furniture in a parking lot. I eat in silence, and halfway through my deeply unremarkable hot dog, everything catches up to me. My serotonin plummets. I crack. This was all a mistake. After dragging myself through four meals, four lines and eight hours of this regrettable endeavor, Pink’s has finally broken me.
I wander around the property trying to figure out what to photograph. Eventually, I just hand my phone to a kind Pink’s employee and ask him to take a photo of me sticking my head through the cutout of a big beach-themed stand, one intended for a party of four. This photo is barely funny, but upon seeing it I cackle like a madman. In fact, I cannot stop laughing. My brain is officially mush.
Dessert at Milk Bar (Wait time: 11 minutes)
I’m technically done for the day, but I’ve become so punchy I still wander over to Milk Bar, a nearby dessert shop that sported lines down the sidewalk after its opening last year. Brain dead, I peer through the window of the cheery eatery for way too long. Tonight, the line is not huge at all, but there isa line. I smile. My prime directive boots up: I see line. Me stand in lines. Me must stand in the line I see.
The Milk Bar line is a warm blanket. Nearby shelves are adorned with cutesy merchandise and I am bowled over by all of it. I laugh uproariously at the black lighters emblazoned with a hot pink message, “It’s Not Even Your Birthday!” This joke kills me, despite in no way whatsoever resembling an actual joke. I buy it. I touch everything. They sell kits for making your own cereal-steeped milk at home and I think, “Ooh, is this a good gift for my next-door neighbor?” I have no idea what a BabyQuake MilkQuake is but I order one because it is so fun to say BabyQuake MilkQuake. BabyQuake MilkQuake, BabyQuake MilkQuake. No longer shy about taking photos, I wave my camera around, leaning across people to get a great shot of all the neat stuff.
I started the day aloof and skeptical. Eight and a half hours later, the lines have deprogrammed me. I am now, by all accounts, exhibiting all the behaviors of a full-blown tourist. And I couldn’t care less.
I have no more use for decorum. I have no use for detached irony.