The line outside San Francisco’s hottest new restaurant starts forming at about 4:00 pm on a Friday night. A dozen or so people line up for about 10 walk-in seats at State Bird Provisions --which just nabbed the James Beards award for best new restaurant in the U.S. In fact, some of the seats for walk-ins aren’t even seats. They’re standing room spaces at a bar top sandwiched between the front door and a kitchen station.
When I ask a waiter why they don’t put bar stools there, he points out — correctly, as I later see for myself — that there’s just not enough room. But yes, as I go to leave, there are three patrons belly up to the bar top trying to enjoy their dinner.
“Places that don’t take reservations are not really servicing their guests.”
Getting into America's hot restaurants has become a sport, and as such unless you're part of the rich and famous sect, most folks have about as much chance of getting into the hip and happening places as getting to to watch the Super Bowl.
What about reservations, you say?
Reservations have become the new jujitsu of the restaurant industry.
In some cities, for even the hottest restaurants, accepting reservations is still the norm. But increasingly, hot spots eschew reservations altogether. While others continue to take them, some eateries are holding patrons to them--or else. Take, for example, Noah Ellis, managing partner at the Vietnamese-fusion restaurant Red Medicine who shamed no-shows on social media.
Still others embraced a kind of gauntlet-like reservation system like the one at Brooklyn Fare in New York City, where you can make a reservation if you call precisely at 10:29am on the Monday morning six weeks before the date where you want to dine. It’s also helps to hold your lucky rabbit’s foot just so. Seriously.
“Honestly, I think it’s all ridiculous,” says Jason Kaplan, a consultant at JK Food Service Consulting in New York City. But he concedes, especially in big cities, going out to eat is as much about the “production” as the meal — including the conquest of securing an elusive table.
Where restaurateurs fall down on the issue of taking reservations or not wildly differs — thus creating some of the production melee. Kaplan says restaurants should make things easier for customers, not harder. “Places that don’t take reservations are not really servicing their guests,” he says.
But Francine Stephens, who owns the Brooklyn, New York, hot spot Franny’s with her husband, chef Andrew Feinberg, feels that not taking reservations provides the best service to guests. “Historically, we haven’t taken reservations out of fairness,” says Stephens. “We want everyone who comes to walk in and have the same opportunity as everyone else. It makes our restaurant accessible to everyone and neighborhood friendly.”
That said, since moving in early April to a bigger space up the street from its original location, Franny’s has started accepting reservations for parties between eight and 12 people. Stephens and her team are quickly learning the downsides from the owners’ perspective, with reservations regularly showing up and then changing the size of their party in person — often to a size for which reservations are not allowed — not to mention a fairly high volume of no shows.
No shows reflect general rudeness, but also the particular comfort diners can feel in restaurants which we treat so much like our own dining rooms, we sometimes forget that restaurants are businesses. “A reservation means we’re putting aside some of our business for you,” Stephens explains.
Rick Nelson, restaurant critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, understands why emerging restaurants might be especially concerned about the financial downside of no-shows. And perhaps, Nelson concedes, there may be a desire among the young, hip generation starting restaurants today to simply do things differently than before — even if the old ways worked fine. Then again, Nelson points out, in a place like Minneapolis, “it’s really cold six months out of the year so waiting on the sidewalk for two hours isn’t fun.” Nor is it ideal to be seated in a restaurant where “50 people are crowded around a bar with their butts pressed up against you, waiting for you to hurry and finish your meal,” Nelson adds.
Clearly, the decision to take reservations is based on striking the right balance between the certainty of reservations and the cost of no-shows, the egalitarianism of queuing versus the frustrations of long waits, and the manufacturing of an overall sense of hipness one way or the other. Perhaps the only consensus as far as restaurant owners goes is that if a restaurant takes reservations, customers who make them should be respectful in honoring reservations or canceling with notice. As for those hard to get in spots like State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, is the mystique of impossible reservations and multi-hour lines worth it? You’ll have to go there yourself and find out. That is, if you can get in.