A busy dining room is fine, but where to draw the line?
A friend who often joins me on restaurant reviews has given me an ultimatum: no more queues. He's refusing to eat with me at restaurants that are so hyped and/or popular that diners have to queue to get a table.
This led to a discussion about whether having to wait is worth it. Too often, a queue is self-perpetuating: people see others waiting to get in, think that it's an indication that the food must be good, and join the line. All too often, they're wrong.
In the interests of objective appraisal, I occasionally have to line up. I've waited at places such as Tim Ho Wan (the original shop, in Mong Kok), many ramen shops and Yardbird (on Bridges Street).
With queuing, the 'experience' (once you sit down) has to be good enough to justify the wait. But it's not just the food that determines if the wait is worth it; it's also whether you're able to spend at least as much time eating as you did queuing.
If you wait for an hour and 45 minutes, as my friends and I did for Tim Ho Wan, but eat in less than an hour, it's not making very economical use of your time. Yes, the dim sum is cheap, and yes, you're free to go off and wander around the neighbourhood - but you'd better be back at the restaurant before your number is called, because if you're not, you have to go to the back of the queue. My time is more valuable than that, and I'd rather pay more to eat at a dim sum restaurant that takes reservations.
I'm torn about places such as Yardbird. I like the food, not just the yakitori (chicken skewers) but also the corn fritters and the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower). But I need to know when I'm going to eat; if I have to wait too long between meals, I get very grumpy. (My excuse - and I'm sticking to it - is that I'm hypoglycaemic.) At Yardbird, when you get a table is determined by how long the people who are already eating decide to stay - if they're taking their time, it could be a long wait for you.
Many of the newer ramen shops have been receiving a lot of hype: every time one opens, the entire foodie community wants to be the first in line to try it. Here's where my policy of waiting at least a month before reviewing a new restaurant keeps me in good stead: if the frenzy dies down as quickly as it started, chances are the place is not worth going to. But unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that a ramen shop's continued popularity after a month ensures the place is good.
The true way to decide whether the wait is worth it is if you're willing to go back. I am, for a few ramen shops. Yardbird? Yes, but I'd rather go either early in the evening, or late, to avoid the dinner rush.