In February 2017, Da Michele brought “the best pizza in the world” from Naples to Stoke Newington. I happened to be passing on opening night, and the queue was stunning. The dawn of Da Michele was on my radar, but I still wondered if Frank Ocean was doing an impromptu gig, or one of those nowadays clothing brands had dropped some limited-edition anoraks.
But, no. The people were queuing for pizza. And they carried on queuing for pizza for months afterwards, despite Da Michele being a permanent fixture in an area you wouldn’t describe as pizza poor. A franchising battle has since seen the famed Naples pizzeria remove its attachment to the Church Street site, but still the people queue.
This is what we do now. And before we do it, we hatch infallible plans: one of us will take a half-day and get there early (“No problem! I need to use up the holiday!”) or we’ll split our party in half and sit at opposite ends of the bar, or what if we head to Wetherspoons now and come back at 10.30pm? Perfect! Ideal! We commit time and energy, despite everything we know about ourselves as Londoners: that is — we don’t have time or energy.
A restaurant Londoners have been queuing outside for eight years now is the beloved “Bombay-style café,” Dishoom. They’ve opened five more restaurants since the first, and diners are lining up from 6pm every day at every single one of them, lapping up the free chai. When Shamil Thakrar, one of the founders, admitted that the thought of disappearing queues keeps him up at night, I asked him to tell me more.
“My biggest fear is that people don’t love Dishoom any more, and the queue is a proxy for that. [The queue is] a signal that people like what we do. I’d get scared that if Dishoom wasn’t perceived as great value or a fantastic experience any more… then maybe we’d see the queues dwindling.”
There is one good reason we’ve allowed queue culture to thrive: the food at a queue-y place tends to be cheaper. Shamil says: “The democratic point about Dishoom is very important. It’s a place where a billionaire could be drinking champagne next to a student knocking back bottomless chai. That’s an absolute good.”
Elsewhere, down on the edge of Borough Market, there are long queues every day at pasta sanctum Padella for similar, simple reasons. “[The queue] helps us keep our prices down,” says co-founder Jordan Frieda. “The first pasta on our menu is £4. The alternative is that people can book, and naturally they'll turn up a bit late, which means unoccupied tables at busy times. That creates an extra cost that the customer ends up covering. The efficiency of a queue keeps prices keen, and that seems to be what people want right now.”
It can feel as though restaurants wear their queues as badges of honour. A deluge of shivering humans could, in theory, be more valuable than any window sticker, because it means your food is worth waiting (and getting hypothermia) for. But it’s not necessarily like that. Wai Ting Chung at Bao says that when they opened their second restaurant in Fitzrovia, they didn’t get the crowds. Second album syndrome; people north of Oxford Circus put off by the thought of queuing, perhaps: “I think people expected the queues they’d seen at Bao Soho,” Chung says. “That’s why, in the end, we decided to keep back a few tables for reservations at Fitzrovia.”
It’s getting harder to hate the queues as the apps take over. For the past 18 months, the queue at Hoppers has been my favourite. It can be two hours long, but they’re only virtual hours. You pop your name and number on the list, head deep into Soho for a drink, and track your position by staring at your phone, which is what you’d be doing anyway. Padella and Da Michele both have apps now, too.
Hype — often via PR, sometimes detrimentally — brings queues to newer spots, but Dishoom’s magnetism seems to have persisted. Eight years is a long time in London restaurants. Without divulging anything like the key to their continued appeal, Shamil Thakrar said: “I think there is an indication that there’s still demand for what we do, but we have to make sure we keep getting better.” He went on: “Our big-hearted team of Dishoom-wallas are always looking at how we can improve.”
Jordan at Padella is measured when contemplating his slice of hype: “A restaurant fad is nice, but we want to be around for 25 years, and that takes passion and dedication. When the queues die down and the Instagram crowd moves on, we'll hopefully start to attract some other customers who don't feel it's their place right now, or aren't prepared to queue.”