Skip

Make reservation by phone for the greatest dinner of your life
July 24, 2014 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Where Restaurant Reservations Come From: Why did the practice develop? In the startup terms of our day, what problem did the institution of restaurant reservations solve? Well, the answer boils down to... sex and propriety.
posted by Cash4Lead (36 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This piece muddles the question of what drives people to use restaurants at all with the question of what lies behind the practice of making "reservations." All the "servant problem" and "gender imbalance" and "propriety" stuff is interesting and important, but does nothing, in itself, to explain the practice of making "reservations" per se; it only explains why people turned to using restaurants at all. The reason for "reservations" is a simple scarcity problem. If you could know for certain that the restaurant you want to use will have a table at the time you want it, you wouldn't bother making a reservation. If you run the risk of showing up at the restaurant and finding all the tables occupied, you know you need to make reservations.
posted by yoink at 8:18 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


That is, until a service like ReservationHop comes along. ReservationHop was a small project to book tables under bogus names and then sell them. When the service came to the attention of San Francisco residents this month, many people were outraged. This startup had broken the reservation social contract, they said: first-come, first-served.

I'm not sure the startup broke the reservation social contract, which is already kind of broken (there are plenty of ways to come later and still be first served, depending on the restaurant). It is, however, a great example of rent-seekers sticking their greedy fingers into every social crack and trying to hoover up spare change. And this is the kind of business plan that needs to be met with a pack of hungry wolves, as a warning for others.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:23 AM on July 24 [23 favorites]


It actually does address the scarcity problem at the end, and concretely links it to the idea of conspicuous consumption.
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


In other words, the end of the article addresses, "WHY are tables at some restaurants scarce?"
posted by muddgirl at 8:26 AM on July 24


Reservations are shit for anything but formal dining. Most of the time I prefer the way Red Robin does it where you can call the front desk, find out the wait then you get added to the list along with every other schmuck that walked in. Then you plan accordingly to get there on time, walk up to the hostess and are immediately seated walking past the incredulous looks of family group of 27 that have been waiting an hour and a half for four tables near each other to turn on a busy Saturday night.
posted by Talez at 8:40 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Yoink, RTFA ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM.

A question about the origin of the reservation system naturally involves the origin of the restaurant itself, particularly if you're asking a restaurant historian.

I'd like to understand why some very busy restaurants do not accept reservations, at all, even though the scarcity problem is clearly present (for example, I waited for more than an HOUR for a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya last month*).

My guess is that there's a class element involved -- the classier, pricier, special event, establishments take reservations partly due to the scarcity problem, partly as part of the performance, and partly for the same reasons those old timey, original restaurants did: because that is how IT IS DONE by polite people.

---------------
*Please recommend me a just as good or better SoCal ramen place with shorter lines.
posted by notyou at 8:46 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


The article didn't get into the relatively new phenomenon of ticketing versus reservations. The highest profile restaurant to do this being Alinea, one of the highest rated restaurants in the US (if not the world). Now take this with a major grain of salt because Alinea has problems that other restaurants would die for, namely massive popularity that breaks the traditional reservation system because (the following taken from their site:)
  • A high volume of calls, especially around the days we would open a month’s reservations book, means that callers often could not get through.
  • 3 full time employees answering phones, mostly to say ‘no’ to potential customers since 70% of people request the same times
  • No shows running at around 8% or more, depending on the time of year (resulting in lost revenue)
  • Lack of transparency makes customers grumpy and combative
Here's an article from the WSJ on ticketing replacing reservations.
posted by jeremias at 8:50 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


"what problem did the institution of restaurant reservations solve?"

As someone who has done a lot of kitchen work, the problem answered is "How can we waste less food and make more profit."

Basically, if you know the numbers, you know to a pretty good approximation how much stock to order so you don't end up with a fridge full of unsold stuff that spoils and has to be thrown away. Simples.
posted by marienbad at 8:51 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]


There are really only two reasons for making reservations: seating scarcity (say for a popular, high-end restaurant), or large groups (give the place warning that you're bringing a dozen diners).

I generally avoid trendy places --- trying to eat squished in with a crowd of hipsters isn't for me --- but just a week ago I made sure a restaurant knew that our group of 13 (seven adults, 5 kids, 1 infant) was coming, so they could be prepared with a suitably large table.
posted by easily confused at 8:53 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I'd like to understand why some very busy restaurants do not accept reservations, at all, even though the scarcity problem is clearly present (for example, I waited for more than an HOUR for a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya last month*).

I'd say this is also an issue of class: conspicuous consumption of time. "Peasants like you have to make reservations at your little eateries, because you have to get back to your jobs. Whereas I, your obvious superior, have no obligations that prevent me from waiting three hours for a table at L'Idiot."
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:53 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


notyou--I RTFA all the way to the end and I completely agree with Yoink--the article is interesting but only casually addresses the issues of demand, scarcity, means, opportunity and efficiency. I make reservations to have the car serviced, hair cut, appliances installed/delivered, service work on the house. And marienbad is absolutely right--it is a very effective way for restaurants that have limited service and one off entrees to plan and profit. I really do not think there is all that much that is mysterious or has layers of meaning and analysis. it works and is efficient.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:54 AM on July 24


I have been instructed to make a reasonable effort to make a reservation for any place fancier than say, a diner, because it is more considerate to the restaurant. ALSO, you always call to cancel your reservation if you can't make it cause otherwise you are being unfathomably rude and God will strike you dead.
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


Previously on Alinea's ticketing reservation system.
posted by Mchelly at 8:59 AM on July 24


faint of butt--is it possible to have some discussions on MeFi without it devolving to class struggles, class consciousness and the belittling of the privileged/middle class. And based on my experiences of 50 years + I do not see any particular empirical support for your conjecture.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:59 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Yoink, RTFA ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM.

I did before I commented. My comment stands.
posted by yoink at 9:00 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Err, Daikokuya has a sign up sheet. You sign up, then go do other things for a while like maybe have a drink nearby or something. No need to stay there until it's your turn.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:01 AM on July 24


I think there are competing theories here. There is another book "The cultivation of taste" by a UK based "Professor of Economic Sociology" that is ostensibly about the development of fining dining in Germany and the UK, but she also touches on the history of fine dining, and contends that early restaurants were an explicit rejection of traiteurs and that indeed the earliest fine dining places in Paris were about Seeing and Being Seen. A big part of that was not just not having private rooms, but also showcasing proper manners in public.
posted by JPD at 9:02 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure it wasn't the middle class I was belittling there...
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:04 AM on July 24


The calculus for taking reservations for a mid-tier place changes over time. When it first opens and is hot you are a fool to take bookings. As long as you have a queue every night it doesn't make sense to take bookings - as fast as you can turn the tables you can seat someone else, and you don't have to worry about people showing up.

Once things cool off a bit you want to take reservations because it helps you to ensure a reasonably full dining room because you open your place to new diners.

When we were childless my wife and I had no problem checking out places that might have epic lines. We could either choose to wait or just go somewhere else. Now with a sitter or even worse having the kid himself in tow, waiting for a table is just not viable. So the only destination type places we'll go to take bookings.
posted by JPD at 9:06 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


It is usual to order the dinner beforehand, so that there will be no needless delay in serving it when the guests arrive.
While I usually don't want to have my options limited, the ability to go out for a medium-fancy dinner and be in and out in a short period of time does sound pretty awesome.
posted by Phredward at 9:20 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I'd like to understand why some very busy restaurants do not accept reservations, at all

Contrary to what some have said, it isn't always a class thing. Two restaurants I can think of here--Salad King and Pizzeria Libretto--don't take reservations for what seems like two reasons: they're so damn busy it would just be a headache for everyone concerned, and they don't need to.

While they both serve amazing food (and Libretto serves the best pizza in Toronto, period, and if you disagree I will cut your face), neither is what one would refer to as fine dining; two people can walk into either of those places and walk out stuffed for under $30 total. Well under, really. Unless you're drinking, which of course ups the price.

As marienbad noted, for restaurants reservations are super useful for managing inventory. And when you're at the level of Alinea or similar, the prep work is so very intense that you absolutely need to know exactly how many of which dishes you are serving that night. I can't think of a single tasting-menu-only restaurant I've ever heard of that isn't essentially reservation-only for that precise reason.

It's also in your best interests as a guest to make reservations, especially if you have special requests (large group size, celebrating a special occasion, a marriage proposal, dietary restrictions, time restrictions e.g. "we have to be out by seven thirty because we have tickets for whatever," small children, etc), because knowing all those things will help the restaurant serve you better and tailor your experience as needed.

There is nothing, I promise you, nothing worse than a last minute walk-in of 10+ people. It is the worst thing.

Basically what I'm saying here is that reservations have basically--nowadays, I mean--almost nothing at all to do with class, and everything to do with efficiency.

It is usual to order the dinner beforehand, so that there will be no needless delay in serving it when the guests arrive.

I've been on both sides of that particular statement, and as a cook it is fantastic, and FOH loves it too. "We have a six top sitting at 6:30, here's their order." You can literally have them eating within five minutes of arriving at the restaurant, which makes your guests happy--and makes your FOH happy because they can flip the table faster, meaning more $$ for the business.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:22 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Should have noted, when I mentioned inventory above I didn't only mean product, I also meant seating inventory.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:28 AM on July 24


I'm pretty sure it wasn't the middle class I was belittling there...

It is very frustrating when people haven't seen LA Story because there are so many situations in which references are extremely relevant.

posted by elizardbits at 10:10 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


I loathe no-reservations restaurants, certainly as done in London. The expectation to queue or at least buy drinks from the bar, means that I end up avoiding any number of restaurants I'd otherwise patronise enthusiastically. It tends to be the small mid-range trendy places which do this, bah.

My ideal restaurant is the one which has a certain number of tables open for reservations, and the rest for walk-ins. Best of both worlds.

That said, ReservationHop will go to the same hell that will one day welcome event ticketing sites.
posted by tavegyl at 10:13 AM on July 24


It is very frustrating when people haven't seen LA Story because there are so many situations in which references are extremely relevant.
Tom: I'll have a decaf coffee.
Trudi: I'll have a decaf espresso.
Morris Frost: I'll have a double decaf cappuccino.
Ted: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
Harris: I'll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.
Trudi: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Tom: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Morris Frost: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Cynthia: I'll have a twist of lemon.

It is the best of movies.


posted by Celsius1414 at 10:19 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


My ideal restaurant is the one which has a certain number of tables open for reservations, and the rest for walk-ins.

This is actually how most restaurants work (except for the extremes of reso-only and no-reso places); when they say they have no more tables available for reservation, what they actually mean is "Of the 40 tables we have, 30 are reserved and we keep the other 10 for walk-ins."

Specific ratio varying, of course.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:25 AM on July 24


Reservations are only a win/win for both the customer and the restaurant if you're in a certain "sweet spot" of popularity.

If you run a restaurant that isn't very popular and almost always has tables available (e.g. the local diner), then there's no real reason to take reservations, and no reason for customers to even want to make reservations. It's just added work on both sides, to maintain the reservation book and physically reserve the tables, and for the customer to choose in advance when they're going to come in. Why bother, when you can just show up whenever you feel like it and get seated immediately?

On the other far end of the spectrum, if you are a very popular restaurant with a small number of tables and you are confident that there will always be a line of people out the door to fill them, then you really don't need to do reservations either. You can basically tell your customers "if you want a table, then you're going to stand around for a few hours and like it". You can, if you are desirable enough, get away with that sort of thing. And who knows, if you run a bar you probably sell a few more drinks that way to the rubes standing around.

But in the middle you have the zone where reservations actually make sense. These are restaurants that are popular enough that they sell out all of their tables, but aren't quite so in-demand that they can tell people to stand around in the lobby for an hour and not have them leave for someplace else. E.g. high end chain steakhouses, just as a example of a place that almost always take reservations. They know that if they don't take reservations, they're going to lose customers -- there are lots of other steakhouses, so if they have an hour wait, you can easily go somewhere else rather than stand around. Keeping a reservation book actually helps the restaurant keep all the tables full, all night: you might call up and ask for a 7PM reservation, they might not have any tables, but you might take an 8PM instead. That's a win for the restaurant that they would not have gotten if you'd just showed up at 7, found out that there was an hour wait, and walked out to go somewhere else.

Now, occasionally you do find restaurants that typically have lots of open tables available taking reservations. I think this is sometimes a sort of aspirational thing on the part of the restaurant. There are a couple of divey local pizzerias that will take reservations, even though all the locals know that they never, ever fill all their tables -- why? I suspect it's because they like to think of themselves as finer dining than they actually are, and taking reservations is something that "nice" Italian restaurants do. So therefore they have a reservation book and some "reserved" signs that I've never actually seen in use.

And I think that's also the reason for the new trend towards not taking reservations at some places that might actually benefit from having them. Refusing to take reservations is an (arguably assholish) way of telling potential customers that you're such hot shit, you don't give a flying fuck about their time, you're above such pedestrian, bourgeois concerns as efficiency. It's the snooty maître d' writ into policy. And some people respond to that sort of thing. (I, personally, don't; life's too short to stand around in restaurant lobbies waiting for tables.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:16 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


The first-come, first-served sign-up sheet is popular with a lot of Japanese places. I have a feeling that it works to maximise the utilization of their stock fairly. I waited an hour for ramen at Orenchi recently. They serve until they run out of soup, and then they close. If people have reservations and don't show up, they wouldn't be using the tables/space as efficiently as possible, and would have to stay later. For good ramen the soup takes multiple hours to prepare, and for sushi places any fish left over at the end of the night is waste. So the system kind of makes sense, but I wish they'd give you a pager or something.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:17 AM on July 24


On the other far end of the spectrum, if you are a very popular restaurant with a small number of tables and you are confident that there will always be a line of people out the door to fill them, then you really don't need to do reservations either.

Not if you're in the culinary stratosphere. Before closing/reinventing itself, elBulli was getting two million reso requests every year. High-level popular restaurants have to have a reso system, otherwise they'll more or less end up with a permanent queue outside.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:30 AM on July 24


Faint of Butt: "Whereas I, your obvious superior, have no obligations that prevent me from waiting three hours for a table at L'Idiot.""


"Five thirty or ten thirty? Uh, five thirty. Visa. I'm a weatherman. Yes, I'm on TV. Renting. I just sold a condo. Yes, in this soft market!"

posted by Chrysostom at 12:11 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Some of the sushi places I go to will take your phone number when you sign up. So you can take a stroll and they'll call you 5-10 mins before they expect to have a table/bar seats for you. Many Korean places let you sign up for the wait list by phone which is almost like a normal reservation.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:27 PM on July 24


celsius "It is very frustrating when people haven't seen LA Story" Frustrating for ??? Actually the only thing that is frustrating is when people make marginally obscure references and then wonder why you do not understand them. Movie lines are not something of which keep track.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:44 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I like how TGI Friday's uses pagers to let you know when your table is ready, because it gives you a chance before your meal to wander around outside and get hit by a bus first.
posted by orme at 2:09 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


orme:
"I like how TGI Friday's uses pagers to let you know when your table is ready, because it gives you a chance before your meal to wander around outside and get hit by a bus first."
Not entirely sure which is preferable... a meal at TGI Friday's or getting hit by a bus.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:31 PM on July 24


celsius "It is very frustrating when people haven't seen LA Story" Frustrating for ???

That was someone I was quoting, but it's the frustration of someone who likes something very much and wishes they could share that goodwill with their friends.

As opposed to snarking about a marginally humorous aside and making something positive into a negative.

/derail
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:53 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Not entirely sure which is preferable... a meal at TGI Friday's or getting hit by a bus.

To be fair, there are endless mozzarella sticks....

Actually, this could support either of your choices.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:04 PM on July 24


« Older “I think it was such a fluke that I got published...   |   Warning: Here be trolls Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post