Are Restaurants That Don't Take Reservations Shutting Out Certain Guests?
Recently, my editor posed a question: Why don't some restaurants that clearly get a lot of business take reservations?
Photo by Troy Fields Cotivare has been doing well in spite of being known for long waits due to a no reservations policy.
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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