Not all queues are created equal. “Most queues are tedious,” says Joe Moran, a cultural historian at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Queuing for Beginners, a book about the history of the favoured British pastime. “But some queues are almost recreational, like queues for sales or Wimbledon: there’s a sort of enjoyment in the collective activity of it.”
If you’ve ever waited outside a trendy new restaurant, getting steadily hungrier and thus more physically dependent on your excitement for the meal ahead, then you’ll have some idea of what Moran is getting at. These particular waiting lines exist somewhere in the hinterland between fun and has-to-be-done.
In recent years, thousands of people in London have stomached hours-long waits outside the likes of Dishoom or Padella or Flat Iron or Bao or The Breakfast Club. So-called “no-bookings” restaurants have become a category of their own, designated not by the food they serve or the atmosphere they conjure, but the fact that – save for bigger parties – you’ll only secure a table by walking up and chancing your luck. But like so much else, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned this system on its head and, in doing so, posed more existential questions of an industry predicated on showing people a good time.
The no-bookings trend has been most prevalent in the capital, where demand for dining out is especially high, but it’s mirrored in other foodie cities in the UK too. Manchester, for instance, boasts its own list of walk-ins-only joints, including the likes of Viet Shack, Common, and Bundobust (which holds back almost all of its tables for walk-ins, and has a branch in Leeds too).
The queues themselves have become a fixture of these must-eat locations. The home page of Padella’s website features a day-in-the-life time-lapse, shot from outside, that begins with chefs rolling and stretching the restaurant’s famed fresh pasta, but becomes increasingly obscured by the slow-moving queue that builds up outside the restaurant as lunchtime and, later, dinner approach.
These snaking lines have, perhaps perversely, come to serve as valuable billboards for buzzy restaurants and bars, as they’re able to cash in on the implication that there’s something worth waiting for inside. “We are herd animals in a sense, we tend to mimic other people, we are social beings,” says Moran, “so if you see a queue your natural inclination is to think there’s something worthwhile at the end of it.”
Queues are also, Moran notes, still a very efficient way of managing resources. Queuing theory (the mathematical study of waiting lines) is still widely applied by businesses across multiple sectors as a way to juggle logistics. Restaurants have used it in a more literal, physical sense: maintaining a line of people outside who can roll in and fill tables as soon as they become vacant.
But while tedious queues for banks, supermarkets, and test centres have been a fixture of the pandemic period, their more enjoyable queue cousins – typified by those for dining hotspots – have all but vanished.
“I’m not gonna lie to you,” says José Etura, who opened Spanish eatery Sabor with Michelin-starred chef Nieves Barragan in 2018, “it’s been difficult times for everyone.” The hospitality industry has suffered the brunt of the past year’s lockdowns, dropping as much as £53 billion in sales and culling staff to save costs.
As restrictions have gradually lifted, demand for dinners out has returned with a welcome boom. Data from booking service OpenTable indicated a 42 per cent uplift in seated diners as restrictions loosened in England in May, compared with the same period in 2019. That comparative increase boosted to 87 per cent over the second Bank Holiday weekend. In Manchester, restaurant owners have reported demand for bookings outstripping even the government-backed freebies of last year’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme.