Restaurant critic arrives on the lines

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The salad line in a local Chopt.
Photo: Dorling Kindersley / Getty Image

It's a known fact that longtime combat veterans are used to all kinds of horror and indignity the longer they stay on the field, and so it seems to be with the graying brotherhood of restaurant critics. Over the years, as diverse trends and boomlets have swept through the ever-changing gastronomic landscape, my colleagues and I have made peace with many strange and discordant developments, including burgers at $ 33, meals on wobbly bar stools, endless chatter on the pedigree of beets and high locavore carrots, the worship of "herbal" meals and even - God forbid preserves - smaller, increasingly noisy dining rooms.

This may be the reason why your humble critic recently felt a strange revival of another well documented horror of these curious new times: the food line. At least that's what came to my mind while I was on a weekend Pizza Scarr, on the outskirts of Chinatown. I introduced myself more or less on a whim with friends from outside the city and I was surprised to see a small crowd meandering through the door. We were maybe 15 in all: tourists, mustache inhabitants, sliced ​​monsters who had made the pilgrimage from their own pizza terroirs unique in the neighborhood to see what it was all about.

Not so long ago, I would have turned on my heels and looked for another place to get a slice of pizza at random, and why not? The tyranny of the viral food line, which turned into a craze for big cities several years ago with the arrival of the famous coconut very imitated by Dominique Ansel, has been well documented by a variety dyspeptic reviews, including this one. But lately, hordes of viral food seemed to have moved on to other topics (hello, fluffy Japanese pancakes and Nutella stores), and at least in my downtown district, the main lines (for cookie dough stores and the fearsome Black Tap milkshakes) are the shadows of their old selves.

At Scarr, however, the non-viral line has been more or less consistent since Scarr Pimentel himself opened his well-revised little slice store on Orchard Street four years ago. And as we slowly made our way toward the alluring smells of the pizza oven, this strangely comforting old pre-viral dynamic familiar to food lovers obsessed with food of a certain age began to take hold. First, we grumbled about our servile behavior, similar to a lemming. Then, as our waiting time decreased, we developed a feeling of captive camaraderie with our fellow passengers, who assured us that Scarr's pizza was worth the wait. Finally, as our noses were pressed against the window of the steamy restaurant, a feeling of anticipation and adventure settled as we contemplated our orders in joyful silence.

It is the magical alchemy of a real food line, of course: it takes you into a common and shared experience, which in turn intensifies and validates the experience in all kinds of edifying ways. Like many omnivorous New Yorkers, I spend a decent amount of food every week without even knowing it, wandering the sidewalk to taste the last cheeseburger destination, lining up for fresh eggs at Union Square Greenmarket, for a breakfast of rice and noodles in the morning at Yin Ji Chang Fen on Bayard Street, or line up every Saturday morning at the local Bagel Bob's on University Place where it is a pleasure, from time to time, to see Alec Baldwin himself picking up his morning bagels with a frowning presidential air.

In the end, there were only a few meager slices left when we reached the start of the line at Scarr, and if we wanted to wait for fresh pies to come out of the oven, the cheerful counter told us, we'd have to wait outside on the sidewalk for another half hour. So we took our slices (a plain, a Sicilian adorned with basil leaves) and conscientiously took some grainy photos for our Instagram feeds. The sauce tasted like sweet tomatoes, not sugar, and the crunchy, floury crusts were charred and puffy at the edges. The slices were excellent, we were all happy and even worth the wait, although next time I'll probably do what many of the neighbors on Orchard Street seemed to be doing. I'm going to call ahead for my full pepperoni pie (or two), walk the dog, do a little grocery shopping and come pick it up when it comes out of the oven, then devour it in the comfort of my own home.

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