Why are we willing to wait so long for toast?
9:26 a.m.: The line is long already. At least 25 hungry souls—uniformly trim, casually but stylishly dressed (white jeans, off-the-shoulder tops), generally young, mostly white—stand jumbled on the sidewalk in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. They stretch from the front door of the cafe to the street corner, some studying the menu, others dodging the waiters ferrying trays of Instagrammatically brilliant toasts to the lucky folks who arrived even earlier than we did and are now, enviably, awaiting their breakfasts. I sigh and take my place at the end of what I will come to think of as The Line.
Welcome to Sqirl, the three-and-a-half-year-old cafe that has led the transformation of L.A. into the epicenter of American breakfast culture. Its rainbow jams and verdant rice bowls are as saturated with flavor as they are with color, and celebrated by everyone from Jonathan Gold and Bon Appétit to legions of crabby Yelpers. Now, after years of hearing about Sqirl—and about The Line—I am here to experience it for myself, at what I’ve been told is the absolute busiest time of the week, and to ponder, over what I expect to be hours of waiting, why we are so willing, even eager, to wait for breakfast and brunch.
In a way, I’ve been looking forward to The Line. After all, I’ve braved epic waits before: an hour for ramen in Tokyo, perhaps more for pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Co. in New York’s Lower East Side. Even when I was a kid, patience was part of the restaurant game. At Sze’s, in Northampton, Massachusetts, my dad told “waiting stories”—about a filthy flock of birds, or about the rival restaurants Fat’s and Speedy’s—to keep my brother and me entertained and uncomplaining. It worked. I survived. I ate, I grew, I understood. Which is to say: I got this.
9:30 a.m.: There are now ten people standing behind me, and The Line is starting to curve around the corner and up the aptly named Marathon Street. I am full of admiration: Not one person has approached The Line only to turn away in horror and disgust. We are all committed. Clear eyes, full hearts!
9:32 a.m.: A woman who works for Sqirl, wearing a light velvet blazer, approaches the corner and says, “If you guys want to stand on the sidewalk instead of in the dirt...” She trails off, and we move out of the dusty median and against the dark-gray wall of the building. On the other side, in a semi-open courtyard, people are actually eating breakfast. I can smell their coffee, and I regret having shown up with only the dregs of an iced coffee to keep me going—no latte, no snacks. (Others, I see, have water bottles or coffee mugs.) Amateurish, I know, but I was worried that if I stopped for supplies, I’d somehow miss the rush and breeze into the restaurant.
Or maybe I’m just out of practice. In recent years, I’ve shied away from lines, my patience exhausted by food trucks and the Cronut. For a while, my wife and I knew the precise timeframe in which to arrive at New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar (between 7:10 and 7:20) so that we could slip in ahead of the dinner rush. Now I’ve got kids of my own, and while I’d love to indulge them with waiting stories, frankly I’d rather just get them fed. But maybe they need to learn to wait. Waiting builds character, right?
9:39 a.m.: “My first impression while driving by to find parking was, Why are people awake right now?”
That’s Jason, who’s 30, lives in West Hollywood, and is standing behind me with his friend Drew, who’s visiting from Philadelphia, and their girlfriends. I’d heard them talking earlier, about the way tasting menus at high-end restaurants like Providence artificially inflate your hunger, and figured I’d ask how they felt about The Line.
Both seem sanguine. They’ve done lines before—45 minutes for ice cream in Denver! an hour or two for sushi downtown!—and they knew that if they wanted to eat by 10:30, they needed to be here by 9:30. Though they might rather be sleeping, or hiking, or going to a farmers’ market, here they are, in The Line.
“One beauty of The Line is there’s less distractions,” says Drew. “If we went to the Grove”—an upscale mall near the La Brea Tar Pits—“then our focus is on the shopping, and then we’re not catching up as much.”
9:46 a.m.: Another Sqirl employee emerges to wrangle The Line back against the wall. It’s a gentle wrangling, however, friendly and casual and cooperative, without a trace of antagonism.
“The Line, if not dealt with, interferes with customers’ ability to get over to tables and also the runners’ ability to get food out,” says Jessica Koslow, who, as Sqirl’s chef and owner, has witnessed the emergence of The Line with more concern than anyone. It materialized in early summer of 2013, following a flurry of press coverage, she tells me by phone ten days after my visit, and “at the time, we really didn’t have line management, so it was really chaotic.”
“There were just too many moments when we were like, ‘Excuse me, we need to get food out,’” she says. “But as The Line continued to become longer, we had to become smarter about how we, like, move The Line and how we interact with it.”
One strategy proved particularly prescient: This is not classical table service. We are standing in line not to be seated but to order our meals, after which we’ll take a numbered, laminated tarot-like card, find a seat, and await the runner bearing breakfast. The system may not be fancy, but it’s marvelously efficient, and I saw it in use all over trendy L.A., from République to Baroo.
But it’s the interaction that is key to Koslow’s line-management philosophy. Of course, she wants to keep passageways physically clear, so customers and runners can move about freely, but she also wants to “gauge the people right outside, to let them know that they’re coming in and what to look for.” The more a customer knows, the happier they’ll stay. Koslow’s employees try, she says, “to really kind of sense when people want to be told, like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not far from here!’”
This strategy has a subtle effect. Elsewhere, you’re not really a customer until you’ve been seated at your table. Here, once you join The Line, you feel like you’re part of the Sqirl community, a customer as worthy as those who’ve already placed their orders. The Line is not simply something you stand in—it’s something that enfolds you. You’re the jam stuffed into the brioche French toast, the element that completes the dish.
9:54 a.m.: And then, suddenly, you are next! That is, I am next! I’m not entirely sure how this has happened. One minute I was talking with Drew and Jason, the next I was standing near the doorway, the women in front of me studying menus, a Sqirl employee shepherding us through the final phases of The Line.
I don’t have a clue what to order. I scan the menu, and it all looks frankly awesome—toasts and eggs and rices, sorrel pesto and preserved lemon and lacto-fermented hot sauce, chickpeas and whitefish and lamb. It’s not actually that long a list, but every single item sounds like a winner, and I wonder how many dishes one single man can order without coming off as a total pig.
(Here, too, The Line has brought about changes. “We had spiny lobster that took 25 minutes to cook over an open fire,” Koslow says of the pre-Line menu. “Like, you can’t do that anymore! You know? It was so idealistic. I miss it.”)
Luckily, I am not a single man this day. My friend Jordana, who’s as psyched as I am to try everything, is nearby. “Waiting on uber,” she texts me. “Also surprise me with coffee ;).”
10 a.m.: Finally. I arrive at the counter, where a woman bearing an iPad helps me through the order. Once again, the service is solicitous in a way I’m not prepared for—she knows the menu has left me in a blur, and that I want to eat it all, but that I probably shouldn’t. Or maybe I can? I will try! I get the ricotta toast, overflowing with cheese and drenched in a “rainbow” of three exquisite jams, and the avocado toast, with green garlic crème fraîche and a hillock of pickled carrots, and the braised chickpeas, with smoked chili and a perilously pointy length of baguette, and a Vietnamese iced coffee with whipped egg whites to surprise Jordana and that sorrel-pesto rice bowl with oh god just kill me. Kill me! I’ve made it.
10:03 a.m.: Ten feet from the counter, I’ve staked out a thin stretch of table, and I feel weird. This has all gone too fast! I was ready for an hour or more of waiting, and now here I am, my breakfast an imminent reality. It almost feels like a waste: In a world where we’re all always insufferably busy, the weekend-brunch wait is perhaps the ultimate expression of leisure, a way to squander irrecoverable time on the most frivolous meal of the week, just to prove that we can—that we are the type of people who can. But what have I proven with the past 37 minutes? Not a damn thing.
10:06 a.m.: “This is the way to do Sqirl!” Jordana exclaims when she spots me, adding that her Uber driver, Adnan, had shaken his head when he saw the line outside, as long as ever. “Look around,” he’d told her. “There are other businesses!”
But no, this really is the place to be, and Jordana’s excitement restores my own. I may not have had to earn this meal through feats of raw endurance—this was a 5K, not a marathon—but at least I’d been willing to give it my all. I had made the commitment from the beginning, and the food that was about to arrive was my reward not for the shuffle from corner to counter but for that first giant leap of faith.
10:13 a.m.: Forty-seven minutes after I joined The Line, I have my food in front of me. I hesitate a moment before the ricotta toast—what if it’s not worth the wait? Only one way to find out! I take a bite, which is less like biting into a piece of toast and more like immersing my entire face in a lake of sweet, creamy cheese. It is glorious. Time stops. I am not eating the toast. I am the toast. I would have waited twice as long for this. And one day, if I’m lucky, I will.
Matt Gross is the former editor of BonAppetit.com and was the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times from 2006 to 2010. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his daughters, and his collection of hot sauces.