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Plat du Jour Friday April 5, 2013: Would You Like To Make A Reservation For Your Reservation?

A few weeks have passed since the restaurant world’s hot button issue du jour revolved around the supposed “tyranny” of tasting menus, where the writer Corby Kummer accused chefs in the February Vanity Fair of killing the liberty in the ¡a la carte restaurant experience. It was an intriguing accusation and one many diners understood. Yes, we love to choose what we eat. Ultimately, it disappeared as most of us food writers advocate for the chefs to follow their creative license. If the chef wants a tasting menu, have a tasting menu. Nobody forces Spielberg to make a comedy for his next film or convinces Belichick when to blitz. They might listen, but they don’t have to (unless you’re the big boss of course).

Now the focus has shifted from what is on the plate to getting the opportunity to sample what is on the plate. Instead of talking about tasting menus, we’re wondering about how we can even get a table to experience the tasting menu.

The question about reservations in restaurants is certainly not a new one. For decades, restaurateurs and diners have debated this question with the never-ending vigor usually reserved for issues in the House and Senate. Should restaurant accept reservations? Should they accept some reservations? Should they be walk-in only? Should they have a call-ahead list? The list goes on. The real answer is by trial and error, each restaurant is unique and will find the “correct” reservation system over time, or they will have to shutter. That answer for Restaurant A will differ from Restaurant B. There are so many factors, from foot traffic to cuisine genre to size of restaurants that make it so there is no “correct” formula as much as we’d all love one.

It’s economics for the restaurants. It’s psychology, too. It’s sociology. It’s logic. It’s math. There might even be some astronomy thrown in too (nights with the full moon differ from nights with a quarter crescent…).

How many no-shows?

How many no-shows?

This constantly simmering question recently hit a boiling point when the (terrific might I add) Los Angeles restaurant Red Medicine started tweeting the names of no-shows on its Twitter feed. That’s right. A restaurant started going so far as to actually revealing the names of the diners who never showed up for their dinner reservations. The idea mainly is: “So, Frank Anderson and your party of 4 at 7:30 last night, what were you doing while we were losing money?” How do you feel now Frank?The phrase “no-show” is a very touchy subject for both restaurants and diners. Restaurants already face a near impossible chance at turning a profit. No-shows are the icing on the cake. For diners, most of us always honor our reservations and cancel a reservation the moment we know that we can’t fulfill the commitment. It’s a two-way street of trust. The restaurant trusts the diner will be there as promised. The diner trusts the restaurant will have the table ready for them as promised.

It’s easy, right? As easy as making a perfect Grand Marnier souffle.

Recently, an 86 year old family member of mine told me about a recent restaurant she visited that doesn’t take reservations. She knew that beforehand. A common argument against “no-reservation” restaurants is that the elderly are shut out of the opportunity to dine there because they can’t handle the crowds or standing for so long. This 86 year old, though she walks with a cane, will wait for as long as it takes for the restaurant she wants to be at, as long as she can sit down (something you’d hope every restaurant could satisfy).

The wait wasn’t outrageous. It was the rationale she was told from the maître d’/ owner about why he doesn’t take reservations that shocked her (this was in a resort-like setting, where people are usually on vacation). When he used to take reservations, upwards of half the reservations would be no-shows. Half! My family member, who is afraid of using computers and still doesn’t understand why this world is so dishonest, was beside herself. How could people do this to a restaurant?

And that, is the ultimate question. How could no-shows exist? How could people be so dishonest? How could you do this to the chefs, the servers, the dishwashers, the owners, and everyone involved? Red Medicine’s tweeting is gentle compared to the fines some restaurants have implemented from deposits made with a reservation. Don’t even try being a no-show at Alinea.

"Commonwealth

Is Red Medicine wrong for tweeting the names of no-shows? It might not be the greatest solution, but it’s far more acceptable than what the no-shows are doing to them.

Which brings our search for the answer on the reservations conundrum to the four main booking avenues for restaurants.

There are the restaurants that are walk-in only and do not accept reservations, at least for everyone except very large parties. There are the restaurants that take reservations (in person, by phone, by email, by online sources like Open Table, Urbanspoon, Seat Me…). There are the restaurants that take reservations and require a credit card with the reservations and feature cancellation policies so that no-shows can be damned. Lastly, there are restaurants that run a “ticket” system and you make a reservation and pay for everything up front, with no cancellation policy safety net to catch you.

Now we all continue to query, what is the answer Trevor? I wish I had the magic potion other than to make no-shows regret doing so.

The general consensus for walk-in only restaurants is that for the less formal, high paced establishments (“neighborhood bistros,” pizzerias, gastropubs…), this is the route to go. A rule of thumb perhaps should be if a majority of the tables will have only one or two courses, this might be smart. Turning tables is key at these places. Holding an empty table 45 minutes for that 8pm reservation can be killer.

Should "gastropubs" or "urban taverns" take reservations?

Should “gastropubs” or “urban taverns” take reservations?

In between the walk-in only and reservations categories, you get that fuzzy gray area of restaurants that in theory take reservations, but for all intensive purposes don’t. Have you ever been to Flour + Water in San Francisco with a reservation? No, because they’re all after 9:30pm in reality, if they exist at all. Instead, you can wait for one to two hours and end up eating at the same late hour as if you had made a reservation.

Every diner’s unwavering request to restaurateurs who adopt this policy is please take down cell phone numbers on the wait list. Very few people want to just sit at the bar and get drunk before dinner. There are other places to be for a few minutes and lots of other places that are probably far more comfortable than a waiting area. It should be a rule: wait list = cell phone numbers on the list.

Who should have reservations? Restaurants where three courses are the norm. That means diners will be spending more time and money at the table. They don’t want to add another one or two hours of wait time beforehand. Restaurants who need a good idea of how many diners they will have that day should follow this category as well, allowing them time for making the right purchases and preparations for the service.

This is when things get tricky and often hostile. I just mentioned the common sense, utopian viewpoint of reservations: I make a reservation, I will fulfill the reservation.

However, we all know that life doesn’t exactly run according to plan oftentimes. You get sick. You get stuck in traffic. You forgot about your son’s soccer game. You have to fly to Milwaukee now. It’s pouring rain and you don’t want to drive. You just had a major leak in the roof.

You get the idea.

Ox in Portland barely takes reservations.Fresh Clam Chowder, Smoked Marrow Bone, Green Onions, Jalapeño

Ox in Portland barely takes reservations.
Fresh Clam Chowder, Smoked Marrow Bone, Green Onions, Jalapeño

At this point, we provide the no-shows with their walk of shame. You are the reason that we may lose the right to reservations at restaurants without having to give credit card fees. Everyone understands life throws curveballs at you. But please, do everyone a favor and call the restaurant to cancel. Even worse, please don’t hog reservations at multiple restaurants at the same time. Share the wealth. Spread the love. You can’t be at Momofuku Ko at the same time as Corton and Union Square Cafe.

Who should have reservations with credit card numbers recorded at the time of reserving? “Destination” restaurants for starters. Simply put, when you’re using more expensive ingredients, the stakes are higher on the books. A no-show at The French Laundry is a minimum $275 gone. That’s a big deal. Throwing away pepperoni isn’t ideal, but it’s not like throwing away un-used Island Creek oysters.

However, this might be the answer for the no-shows at all restaurants with reservations. Charge them at least a fraction of the meal’s cost for not showing up. Yes, it makes diners a lot more hesitant to reserve with the scary credit card number involved. Yet it’s only fair for the restaurateur to be compensated in some form. On the flip side, the cancellation policy MUST be clearly understood and flexible (as in you can cancel free of charge up to an hour or even a half hour before your reservation to allow the table to be filled, but also the time for you to know what the traffic is like). We’ve all had flights delayed and traffic keeping us from reservations we made weeks in advance. For all but the extreme cases though, could you cancel at least a half hour out? Almost always.

Now to the final group, the tickets, made famous by Grant Achatz with his Chicago “restaurant” Next (his flagship Alinea now follows the same system, but didn’t used to). The argument for the pay up-front system used at Next always has been that we willingly do this for the performing arts, airplanes, and sporting events, why are restaurants different?

They shouldn’t be. A seat at a table is just like seat 35D in Section 212. The Red Sox don’t refund you if you get sick the day of the game. Why should the restaurant have to refund you? Besides, the Red Sox certainly operate with much more financial luxury than any restaurant could ever dream of.

There are several pros to this system, especially for the restaurant. For diners, the only real pro is that you already know what you’ll be paying from the start. The meal experience should then be much smoother. At least it SHOULD be smoother.

The French Laundry requires a credit card number with a reservation

The French Laundry requires a credit card number with a reservation

Something still seems wrong, though. With a trip to Chicago coming up, I recently spent some time exploring the Alinea reservation system. I’ve been able to crack the three month in advance, wake up in the middle of the night reservation riddles of Noma in Copenhagen. Pizzeria Mozza? The French Laundry? Cake walks compared to this jigsaw puzzle.

Alinea and Next’s ticket system involves subscriptions, logging in, re-sales, day-of sales on Facebook, single people buying four tickets with no idea who the other three people at the table will be. Is this really right for a restaurant meal?

Hey, it works for when you’re one of the world’s most coveted reservations. But, very few places are Alinea and Next. In other terms, the lack of a cancellation policy makes it so almost nobody would reserve at a restaurant anywhere, period. People will fly to Alinea from San Diego the morning of a dinner if they had to. I don’t think that is the case for most restaurants.

No Sushi, No Kids. Definitely No Reservations. Get The Message At Tanuki

No Sushi, No Kids. Definitely No Reservations. Get The Message At Tanuki

Where should we go from here with reservations? Is it wrong that some restaurants have complicated reservations procedures and are so popular you can stop dreaming of dining at them?

We should accept that some restaurants cannot operate with reservations, so they should contact you when your table is ready on the wait list as a courtesy. We should accept that people are dishonest and there will be no-shows. From there, diners should accept giving a credit card number with reservations, while the restaurant has a flexible cancellation policy. It’s only fair for both sides.

Maybe restaurants should only reserve half the seating for walk-ins and the other half is for reservations under credit card numbers? Then the combination of in demand seating and credit card guarantees should insure a full house. This can go and on

We will continue looking for answers as restaurateurs and diners. There are no “correct” answers. Every restaurant is unique in its own situation. The one correct answer we can all agree on: shame on no-shows for even making this a debate.

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