Unlike the iconic Maine lobster shacks, New York pizzerias and Philly sub shops that have been around for decades, these meccas are all relatively new. Their signatures dishes have gained cult status among the growing foodie community — with the help of blogs and social media.
"And the more you have to work to get them, the better," says Izabela Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation. "Often, the food is really fabulous. But if these foods were easy to get all the time, I don't know if they would be as coveted."
Indeed, Hot Doug's, a gourmet hot dog shop renowned for its foie gras dogs, has been drawing crowds since it first opened in 2001. But when owner and chef Doug Sohn announced in May he'd be closing the place down in October, the lines increased threefold, Sohn says.
Those who score a specialty dog get bragging rights, Wojick says. "People who do pass the test and get one of these items, I do think they feel empowered, like they're better," she says, laughing.
Often, the people who survive brutally long lines will share photos of their winnings — toasty dogs or perfectly crusted brisket — on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or on their personal food blogs.
Social media and blogs feed the hype around certain restaurants, says Erin DeJesus, who edits the the food blog Eater Portland. "I think social media and digital presence is a huge part of it," she says. "I don't know if people would be as excited to stand in line for a ramen burger if they couldn't share it on Instagram."
But there's also something to be said for the actual experience of waiting, says Vinny Eng, the general manager at Tartine Bakery. Tartine starts a wait list for their famous bread 30 minutes before the start selling it, Eng says. And lately the bakery has worked to keep wait times fairly short.
When there is a wait, though, Eng says he and the bakers at Tartine are humbled by those willing to endure it. "Time is the one resource that we can all give and take," he says. "It's one way to show value for what an artisan is doing." Customers get something out of waiting as well, he says. "It's a sensory experience. You can smell everything and see everything, and you see the bustle."
He may be onto something. Studies show that waiting for an experience can boost our happiness, as can talking about the experience afterwards.
"You get pleasure from the meal itself. But in people's memories, the wait is part of the experience. That's part of what people are talking about," says Amit Kumar, a doctoral student of psychology at Cornell University who studies the relationship between money and happiness.
Waiting gives people the opportunity to look forward to something, he says: "It's whetting the appetite." And it gives people the opportunity to bond with fellow foodies.
Kumar says he's a bit of a foodie himself. During a stint in New York City, he queued up for ice cream at Momofoku Milk Bar and the famous banana pudding at Magnolia's Bakery. While waiting for Momofoku, Kumar tells The Salt, "I found myself in lots of interesting conversations with fellow ice cream lovers about where to get the best scoop in New York."
Grieco, the 25-year-old food pilgrim, concurs. While waiting for barbecue in Texas, she says, "We talked to a bunch of the people in line. Everybody in line had a different story to tell about why they Austin. I definitely felt like I made new friends."
Have you ever stood in line for hours to try an iconic dish? Tell us your food pilgrimage stories in the comments, or tweet to us at @NPRFood with the hashtag #nprfoodpilgrim.