Recently, my editor posed a question: Why don't some restaurants that clearly get a lot of business take reservations?
I explained that individual restaurants likely have different reasons for that choice, but that it's becoming an increasingly popular option. First come, first served.
She went on: But could that be keeping a whole segment of the population from dining there. Young people are much more likely to wait a few hours for a table than older people, she reasoned. Young people stand in line for concert tickets or video games. Why not dinner?
While I can't personally attest to seeing a younger crowd at places like the uber popular Coltivare, which hasn't taken reservations since it opened, instead opting for a waiting list policy, I do think it's an interesting question. Though I get uncomfortably hungry, I have no problem waiting upwards of an hour if I know the end result (an awesome meal) will be worth it. My parents, on the other hand, would rather restaurant-hop until they find a shorter wait.
In January, restaurateur Ken Friedman--famous for his opposition to taking reservations at his restaurants--wrote an article for Food & Wine in which he explained the reasoning behind the decision not to take reservations at his most popular eatery, The Spotted Pig in New York City:
"When you don't take reservations, people have to wait for a table; they go to the bar and hang out. As every restaurateur knows, you make much more money selling a drink than you do selling a plate of food...You also eliminate another big problem: no shows, which there's no good way around."
It makes sense to keep people waiting at the bar. If I have to wait more than ten minutes at a restaurant with a decent bar, that's where I'm headed, and I'll buy one of those overpriced drinks to sip while I wait. And honestly, I'll enjoy it. Friedman's plan is a good one.
Not taking reservations means you don't have to hold tables for parties who may not show up, and the diners who do show up are likely to buy more drinks or to patronize surrounding bars while they wait. Everybody wins, right?
Friedman does acknowledge a downside, which is essentially the same thing my editor mentioned:
"There's a certain segment of the population, like 'old' people my age--I'm well past 21--who would never go to a place where they can't be guaranteed a seat. For example, I would never wait an hour for a table. But I made an exception recently for Franklin Barbecue in Austin. We waited for over two hours. It was torture--my legs hurt, my back hurt, I'm starving, I start to feel faint. It was a taste of my own medicine."
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In an article for the Washington Post, Tom Sietsema posits that "the allure of the near-unattainable" is part of what attracts young people to hip restaurants with no reservations and long waits. It also appeals to the egalitarian sensibility in many diners. Why try desperately to get their name on the reservation list at Oxheart when they can walk up to a nice place and know that eventually they, like everyone else who's waiting, will get in?
Sietsema posits that it may not be long before well-to-do individuals start hiring concierges or proxies (potentially through Craigslist) to stand in line for them. "Is all of your party present?" "Um...sure...sort of."
Like Friedman, Sietsema notes that there is a sense of ageism that comes with a no reservations policy:
"By not guaranteeing tables, restaurants dismiss whole groups of would-be patrons. The masses include senior citizens who might not be able to stand for long or don't go out after dark, parents who may be reluctant to shell out $20 an hour for child care for a meal that may or may not happen, and suburbanites reluctant to drive in for the chance to be turned away. ('Maybe that's the point?' an acquaintance snarked.) I smell ageism. Sure enough, a scan of the dining rooms that don't book tables could be a casting call for a J. Crew catalogue."
Here in Houston, the no-reservations restaurants I frequent don't really read like J. Crew catalogues, but there aren't very many spots that adhere to that practice.
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Coltivare, of course, is one of them, but the crowds there seem to have figured out both when to go for the shortest wait time and that regardless, they'll probably have to wait, so they might as well deal with it. Roost is another local restaurant where I've encountered long waits due to a no reservations policy, and unlike some other restaurants with the same rules, Roost doesn't have a large bar where would-be diners can pass the time. There are a number of picnic tables outside where one can sit and sip, but if it's pouring rain (as it was last time I was there), it's not a very pleasant wait.
Morgan Weber, co-owner of Coltivare, addressed the wait (but not the policy) in an article in the Chronicle from February saying, "I hate it too. I don't like the fact that you're not sitting down eating." Roost owner Kevin Naderi declined to comment.
The trend hasn't taken hold in Houston so much as it has in D.C. or New York (prompting Freidman's and Sietsema's articles), but it is something to consider, as there are pros and cons to the practice.
Tell us what you think: Should all restaurants that attract crowds take reservations? By not taking reservations, are they essentially turning away certain segments of the population?