When I moved to Chicago, there were three things I swore I would never do: run for a bus, root for the Bears, and stand in line outside a restaurant. The first two didn’t take long to happen, but while living on North Halsted in the nineties, I spent a lot of time gaping out my window on Sunday mornings at Lincoln Parkers waiting an hour to eat ordinary omelets at Toast. These lines were a joke to me until they also began forming at artisan places like Hot Doug’s and Great Lake. Now every three-star chef with a brain is launching an upscale street-food concept, and I’m not laughing. With serious diners flocking to Xoco, Big Star, and DMK Burger Bar—and recurring doubts about whether I should sacrifice two hours of my life for a taco—I did the only thing that made sense: I got in line.
“The presence of a line provides social ‘proof ’ that a place is indeed exceptional,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “And it’s a general psychological principle that if we work toward something, we end up liking it more.” Made sense, until I sought a second opinion from Fishbach’s colleague at Booth, Ann McGill, who cited what’s known as the halo effect. “Humans crave an orderly universe, and they tend to like consistency,” says McGill. “So for some, if being in the line is awful, they would be ready to see the food as awful, too.” I would add a third group: those who are so hungry by the time they get their meal that they’d be thrilled with a sautéed Hacky Sack.
I tested Fishbach’s and McGill’s theories on a recent Saturday at Rick Bayless’s torta heaven, Xoco, where endless menu signs seemed to confuse the already tense line. None of the customers knew what they were allowed to order, triggering a flow of dubious information. (“They’re only serving breakfast.” “They’re only serving soups.” “They’re only serving tortas approved by Bayless’s yoga instructor.”) When I reached the counter after 40 minutes, an employee barked at my friend for touching a sign that read CHURROS $1.00 EACH, then told us we couldn’t have churros. Or tortas. We were too early for lunch, and if that’s what we wanted, we had to get back in line. Forty-five minutes later, we reached the counter again, ordered four tortas, and scurried to the cramped dining area.
Just when I was ready to hate Xoco, my order arrived. All four tortas were remarkable, especially the pepito, a Labriola roll packed with tender braised Tallgrass beef, caramelized onion, melted Jack cheese, black beans, and pickled jalapeños and cooked in a wood-burning oven. Tasted like a cheese steak vacationing in the Yucatán. I ate my griddled Cubana torta (an addictive smoked Maple Creek pork loin, Nueske’s bacon slabs, melted Jack, avocado, and chipotle mustard) with such gusto that habañero salsa splashed in my eye, forcing me to finish in one-eyed agony. The crisp cocoa-nib-topped churros beat any I’ve found in Pilsen, and the Aztec hot chocolate was like a big glass of mole, thick and spicy and ridiculously smooth. All of which left me wondering: How stubborn would I have to be to write off a restaurant whose food I adored?
I schlepped my psychological baggage to DMK Burger Bar, the popular Lake View spot from Michael Kornick (MK) and David Morton (Pompei). So many customers turned up for handcrafted burgers and microbrews on DMK’s opening night last November that hundreds of turned-away patrons were each given a voucher for a free draft. So I set aside four hours for a lunchtime visit. When I saw no line out front, I figured the place was closed.
Wrong. Hordes crammed the industrial-slick space. Miraculously, a few tables were open, and 20 minutes after walking in, I had my paws on three burgers, truffle Parmesan fries, Wisconsin Cheddar and scallion fries, and a Madagascar vanilla bean milk shake—none of which I felt I had earned. Reminded me of a 2003 trip to Epcot with my wife’s injured mother: We got ushered to the front of each line, and the rides never seemed as fun as they should have.
Sure enough, though everything at DMK was fresh and pleasant, nothing beyond the truffle Parmesan fries and the fluffy chocolate and peanut butter cupcake thrilled me. Kornick’s grass-finished burgers are relatively lean, not the kind that run with juices. The #1, stacked with aged Cheddar, thick smoked bacon, charred balsamic onions, and barbecue sauce, was fine, but I preferred the #11, a distinctive grass-fed lamb burger that united sheep’s milk feta, olive tapenade, and tzatziki. Hard to fault DMK for running a smooth ship, but I missed a heightened sense of anticipation. “Maybe we should’ve gone on Friday night to get the full effect,” said Mrs. Dining. And here I thought the full effect was what I’d spent years avoiding.
I certainly got the full effect on a recent Friday night at Big Star, where throngs of humanity packed in, from the square bar to the wooden booths. The polished honky-taco-tonk in Wicker Park’s old Pontiac Cafe space is equal parts whiskey and tequila bar, taquería, and stage for one of Chicago’s true superhero chefs, sans cape: the partner Paul Kahan. He hustles around, running dishes and changing country records on the hi-fi; I watched one fanboy text a friend about the Blackbird chef ’s every action. Raucous larger parties—who don’t appear to know Paul Kahan from Chaka Khan—snag booths early in the evening and spend the rest of the night toasting their luck with small-batch bourbons. “A third of the people are here because of Kahan and a third because of the scene,” the doorman told me. “The rest still think it’s the Pontiac.”
The self-managed crowd jockeying for seats didn’t resemble a line so much as vultures gauging who was closest to finishing, then lurking behind those diners until they got so uncomfortable they left. Somehow, this system works. When Mrs. Dining stuffed her coat beneath one man’s barstool as he was biting into his tacos al pastor basted in pineapple juice and chile de arbol, he said he’d done the same thing to the guy before him. Thirty minutes later, he surrendered his stool.
Justin Large’s tacos bring the thunder. The chef ’s tacos de panza is an impeccable small tortilla laid with crisp braised pork belly and onion in tomato-guajillo sauce, with a sprinkle of queso fresco, a smattering of cilantro, and a spritz of lime. I followed that with tacos de borrego of succulent lamb shoulder with grilled scallions, radishes, queso fresco, and braising liquid. Chased each with a Schlitz mini and had myself a tidy little meal for $7. Under striking skylights, Big Star’s wait was far more pleasant than Xoco’s, and—given the mental mess I had become—it provided the social validation DMK hadn’t.
Next I tried my luck at Great Lake, a.k.a. Chicago’s most notorious line. Last year, when GQ named the Andersonville pizzeria’s mortadella pie the best pizza in America, hype-fueled bloggers were so put off by the long waits that they took out their frustrations on the pizza—and its meticulous maker, Nick Lessins. Not that Lessins helped matters. Last summer I saw him spend an eternity situating basil strips on a pizza, then slam the beautiful creation on a testy customer’s table and return to the kitchen, where he could be alone with his basil. Here was a man who seemed to love pizza and hate people.
As expected, when I arrived on a Thursday night, the brick-lined room was full of people killing time while Lessins did his thing behind the counter. The mood at the little pizzeria, though, had mellowed: no angry customers or pizza slamming. At one point, Lessins actually smiled. “Oh, some customers are still grumpy,” said Lydia Esparza, Lessins’s wife and partner. “They always will be. But we mostly just have our regulars now.”
My wait was only 35 minutes—long enough to see Lessins molest the basil four times. And the pizza was a beauty, full of crispy black pockets and sporting a puffy collar embedded with sea salt. I marveled at the crisp exterior and pliable interior, and I loved the aggressive combination of toppings (spicy homemade chorizo, aged mona cheese, purple and white onions, fresh cream). Lessins brilliantly takes the good elements of a classic Naples pie and goes in more exciting directions because he’s not beholden to all those dreary Neapolitan standards. Nor is he beholden to his customers—in fact, he almost seems to like them these days.
In the end, though, only one person could offer me enlightenment. Upon my arrival at Hot Doug’s—high noon, duck-fat Friday—I counted 50 souls outside Doug Sohn’s beloved Avondale hot dog joint. The goofy cross section included a hipster in a hoodie that said TASTY SALTED PIG PARTS and an old lady with a walker. “We’re screwed,” one guy groaned to his buddy when he saw the crowd. Then they got in line. People sang, asked trivia questions, snapped pictures. Their only anxiety was: Should I order two dogs or three?
“The majority who get to the front of the line are happy,” says Sohn. “If someone is angry, my first response is: I didn’t send you a summons.” When I finally reached the cash register and met Sohn, it was like having an audience with the pope: a lovable, sausage-obsessed pope. I went for the Sauternes-and-foie-gras-enhanced duck sausage with foie gras mousse and truffle aïoli (obscenely decadent), garlic-doused pork sausage with chili-garlic mustard and horseradish Cheddar (spicy, snappy, and wonderful), and duck-fat fries (available Fridays and Saturdays and only slightly better than normal fries).
Then I posed the question I had climbed the mountain to ask: Is all this waiting-in-line business worth it? “That’s entirely up to the person in line,” Sohn said. “But as someone who goes out of his way to avoid lines, my idea of a good restaurant is an open table and a liquor license.” Wise man, that Doug. Though hardly helpful, considering his restaurant—where I had just waited in line for an hour—has neither.
BIG STAR 1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039 HOURS Lunch, dinner daily FYI Cash-only policy hurts; ATM in corner helps.
DMK BURGER BAR 2954 N. Sheffield Ave.; 773-360-8686 HOURS Lunch, dinner Tuesday to Sunday FYI Don’t overlook the impressive beer list with its amusing tasting notes.
GREAT LAKE 1477 W. Balmoral Ave.; 773-334-9270 HOURS Dinner Wednesday to Saturday FYI Ice creams by HotChocolate’s Mindy Segal take the place to the next level.
HOT DOUG’S 3324 N. California Ave.; 773-279-9550 HOURS Lunch Monday to Saturday FYI Your food will arrive within five to eight minutes of ordering—and you won’t be rushed from your table.
XOCO 449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688 HOURS Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday to Saturday FYI Repeat this mantra while waiting: Rick Bayless is making my sandwich. (Unless he’s not, in which case you’re on your own.)
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