Nathan's: Another Epic New York Food Line
Of all the New York City lines I've waited in, Nathan's, in Coney Island, has to be the worst.
The line at the Shake Shack is long but efficient, though in the end, you get a damn fine burger.
Di Fara's "line" (which is really more of a "crush") is long and inefficient, but at least you get the Dom DeMarco Show while waiting and some damn fine pizza as a result.
Lines at Magnolia? Whatever. For all its charms, Sex and the City never held that much sway with me, and I refuse to wait even two minutes for a cupcake.
Lines at Nathan's are something else entirely. There are multiple queues, and you never seem to pick the right one. Some are long, and some are short. They are all inefficient. The view is unremarkable at best (a dirty and shuttered Surf Avenue) and unpleasant at worst (a shirtless guy's sweaty back). And in the end, you get a nothing-special hot dog that costs $3.25.
I was reminded of this on Sunday, when the wait for a lobster sandwich and a single hot dog turned into a half-hour affair.
The girlfriend had heard that Nathan's did a surprisingly decent and cheap lobster roll, and since we were in Coney already, we stopped by for a snack on our way home.
First mistake: Getting in the shortest line on the side of the building that faces Stillwell Avenue. It's apparently for drinks only. A sign stating as much would be nice. For a lobster sandwich (it's not so much a roll, as it's served on a sesame-seed burger bun), we were pointed vaguely "over there."
Second mistake: Standing in line with the girlfriend for 15 minutes before realizing the line we were in only handled the seafood orders. I would have to go to the west wing of the building to queue up for a dog.
Third mistake: Picking the shortest line. It was short for a reason. Because all the smart people had funneled to lines that actually moved.
The wait gave me ample time to observe the process at Nathan's. Instead of, say, a McDonald's or Shake Shack, where there's division of labor and efficiency of layout, your Nathan's cashier takes your order, assembles it, and pours your drinks. Cashiers may disappear for minutes at a time while gathering the meal's components, leaving you wondering if they'll ever return. With the narrow space they work in, and the fact that the drinks stations are few and far between, it's no wonder it takes forever for them to put a couple dogs in a cardboard carton and fill some cups. It's not for a lack of hot dogs—the grill is positively full of tube meat.
But I'm yelling into the hot, late-August wind here. Nathan's has been around since 1916, and there's no shortage of tourists—from near or far—to take the place of anyone disgruntled enough to opt out. There's no incentive to change what's always worked for the place. Plus, there's always a sucker like me, hungry and foolish enough to wait. Just keep this in mind as you consider eating there this Labor Day weekend. I'd suggest a trip to nearby Totonno's instead.
Oh, and the lobster sandwich? "Pretty good for the price," the girlfriend says.
8/29/2008: I should have mentioned this in the original bit, but I just got an email from the gf: "Also, you did not mention that my lobster roll burnt and they still tried to give it to me (after I yelled several times, "My lobster roll is burning! I think it may be on fire!")! And that something broke in the aisle behind the counter, and everyone still stepped around it, instead of cleaning it!"
This is true, I can confirm that after I received my hot dog, she still did not have her lobster sandwich, and we watched it burn under the broiler as the workers ignored her pleas. They made her a new sandwich, one which itself came dangerously close to being burned.