There are 59 people lined up ahead of me at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. It’s a beautiful summer day, sunny and 73 degrees. Amid the chatter of waiting customers, the whir of nearby traffic, and the gentle wailing of a saxophone somewhere in the distance, you can actually hear birds chirping. A light breeze rustles through the trees overhead.
As I approach the front of the line, I am suddenly bumped from behind. When I turn around, the young offender in his stroller shoots me a look, as if to say, “Whatta ya lookin’ at, bub?”
This is the real New York experience: Waiting in line.
When you come to New York, you will spend a great deal of time waiting in line. You will wait in line to buy theater tickets. You will wait in line to try some trending stunt food du jour. Heck, you will probably wait in a ridiculously long taxi line as soon as you arrive here. And as you wait, it will seem like all of humanity is right there with you, often on top of you!
Waiting in line is such a big part of city life that New Yorkers talk about waiting in line a bit differently than other people. They call it waiting on line—as in, you need to be on something in order to cope with all the waiting.
In my experience, the line at the original Shake Shack is the only one that’s ever truly worth standing in—or on.
Location is everything in this town, and this is a prime example. For most other things in New York, you will find yourself lining up to wait along some filthy sidewalk. But when you queue up at the very first Shake Shack, you will do so in Madison Square Park, a tranquil, tree-dotted oasis in the middle of manic Manhattan.
A modest concession stand when it opened in 2005, Shake Shack built its reputation on consistently good burgers and ridiculous custardy concretes.
One time along the line, I spotted ketchup expert Malcolm Gladwell locking eyes with a very intimidating parrot.
And then there are the fries. Locals are so fanatical about the fries—classic freezer-style crinkle-cut beauties that are geometrically proven to hold more ketchup or cheese sauce than traditional straight fries—that people protested when Shake Shack switched to a different cut a few years ago. The company wisely switched back to the beloved crinkle.
From this actual shack, Danny Meyer has opened Shake Shacks in cities across the country and around the world. Whether at the Mall of America outside Minneapolis or in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, they all offer pretty much the same menu. The people-watching in these locations may differ, but I’d bet that the experience of waiting in line is always better at the original location.
On a nice day, you’ll see folks from all walks of life waiting to order: mothers with their children, millennials with their smartphones, fashion models with their coconut waters, firefighters with their bleeping walkie-talkies. One time along the line, I spotted ketchup expert Malcolm Gladwell locking eyes with a very intimidating parrot.
The food always lives up to the scenery. Here, in the relative fresh air, surrounded by all these different characters, the burgers somehow seem juicier, the crinkle-cuts crispier and more comforting.
You may wait up to half an hour or longer to eat. (For a peek at the size of the line right now, check out the restaurant’s website and scroll down to the handy online Shack Cam.) But it will be the most pleasant and interesting 30-minute wait possible in this incredible, chronically delayed city. And what you get at the end of the line will be worth it. How many places can you say that about?
Chris Shott is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He was previously an editor at Thrillist, Food Republic, Washington City Paper, and New York Observer.