The Anatomy of a Line: The Evolution of Communal Dining in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is home to a number of unique cultural enclaves and pockets spread out throughout the city, which, while great for culinary diversity, is not exactly ideal for fostering a sense of Angeleno community. Both visitors and locals know that Los Angeles is certainly a driving town and while the local dining community as a whole is an incredibly supportive system, the spread out nature of the city can be quite isolating for chefs and diners alike.

Recently, the introduction of long, communal tables in restaurants was seen as a dining revolution that forced patrons to sit in close proximity to their fellow diners while they enjoyed their meals. While some resisted the forced interaction, many others enjoyed the ability to share in a meal with their newfound dining partners, filling a void Angeleno diners never even knew they had. As such, the seating arrangements caught on like wildfire and continue to be implemented within some of LA’s best restaurants today.

Yet recently, a new kind of communal dining taken hold in a form not quite as expected – a restaurant line.

Seemingly much more of a challenge for restaurants to overcome rather than celebrate, the infamous restaurant line has yielded a surprising result in fostering a sense of community connected to a shared, communal dining experience.     

Post-Recession Strip Down

In the wake of the economic recession, dining in the United States changed immensely with diners beginning to look for budget friendly alternatives that could allow them to continue dining out without the financial burden of a white table cloth style meal.

Valerie Gordon, founder of Los Angeles’ Valerie’s Confections, explains that “Post-Recession, consumers’ expectations have been changed. Table service has become a thing of the past and restaurants have stripped down their barriers to accommodate this change in consumer demand.”

“Trucks are now considered dining,” Gordon furthered. “Angelenos are dining outside in places like Farmers’ Markets amongst gorgeous produce.”

This change in consumer expectations has resulted in a number of chefs, who were once identified with upscale concepts, to shed the pomp and circumstance in favor of a return to the basics, opting to now serve elevated simple dishes at affordable pricing.

Many of these once fine-dining based chefs can now be found at a number of the city’s counter style eateries, such as the food stalls in LA’s Grand Central Market or other upscale take-out joints. These casual, upscale dining establishments have unsurprisingly attracted quite a ravenous following, often resulting in hour long waits for customers clamoring to get their share of the cheap eats. 

Yet while many customers may initially loathe the long line standing between them and their meal, the very existence of the line has served to bring LA diners together in the form of a shared culinary experience.

The Anatomy of a Line

For restaurant operators, perhaps the most obvious benefit of a line is the added hype it imbues into their restaurant. Passersby assume that restaurants with a long line must be serving up something worth waiting for and view the line as validation that the restaurant is in fact popular amongst fellow diners. 

Yet in addition to the added hype, the community aspect that restaurant lines are also capable of fostering is a new phenomenon that has been identified by a number of industry experts. 

Food critic for the Los Angeles’ Times Jonathan Gold describes how by waiting in line, diners are in effect fostering a sense of community. 

“They have nothing to do but talk to each other,” Gold explains. 

Chichen Itza chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. furthers this idea, observing that while patrons wait in line at his restaurant, they often begin discussing with their neighbors what to order, with many of the regular customers offering recommendations on dishes. 

“People need a place to gather,” Chef Christine Moore of LA’s Union states as her reasoning for opening her casual, coffee shop style restaurant. “LA is a driving city and I wanted people to be able to walk down the street and get a coffee and a pastry.”

Gold adds another added benefit is the sense of urgency a line can offer.

“Diners want to order everything as they’ve been seeing dishes whizzing past them as they wait,” he states. “[The line] also justifies over-ordering as customers think: I’ve been waiting a long time, I deserve this reward.”

And finally, Cetina Jr. describes how a restaurant line can also foster friendly competition amongst other food purveyors nearby, as operators see another concept drawing in customers and tend to step up their own efforts to compete.

“It keeps you at the top of your game,” says Cetina Jr.