Restaurant Reservations? Why Some Restaurants Don’t Take Them
No question about it. Wanting to reserve a table at your neighborhood restaurant when they don’t take reservations is incredibly irritating. Where are you supposed to turn for your romantic dinner for two? Doesn’t the chef know you can’t get through the weekend without his charred cauliflower? And more importantly, why isn’t everyone on board with reservations by now? This is 2017, right? Nobody uses their phone to actually talk to people anymore.
While the frustration is unquestionable, there are usually many questions to be considered when deciding whether or not to take restaurant reservations. It’s a sticky topic for neighborhood restaurateurs who want to attract their neighbors, but also want to fill their restaurant during operating hours — and not just during the magic hour of 7p when all of Seattle seems to prefer to dine.
“You kind of have to understand how your restaurant works before you take reservations,” says Tim Baker, who opened San Fermo in the old Pioneer House on Ballard Avenue nearly a year ago. “You don’t really know what reservation slots to accept if you don’t know when you fill up, what the pattern of your neighborhood is; are weeknights busier? Do we get walkins all night long? For us, that was part of the issue with reservations.”
Since opening its doors in May 2016, San Fermo has received a good deal of press (including the cover of Seattle Met’s “Best Italian Restaurants” issue this past February), which usually attracts a good deal of diners. Baker made the decision recently to start taking online restaurant reservations. “A lot of the reason we switched to reservations was because our customers were getting frustrated with long waits.” When San Fermo first opened, Baker was taking reservations for the outside patio only, but in hindsight, that proved to be a bad idea. “You don’t want seating that you can’t absolutely count on to be reservable or you’ll find yourself overbooked.” Translation: if the clouds move in, so do the diners.
“I think (not taking reservations) doesn’t offer the best guest experience,” says Angela Stowell, who runs Ethan Stowell Restaurants alongside her husband. “I think there are some places where it makes sense. For instance, Ballard Pizza Co. doesn’t take reservations because it’s a family pizza place. But How to Cook a Wolf didn’t do reservations at the beginning and neither did Tavolata, which is insane. I can’t even believe that was the case! But we were a different restaurant group back then. At How to Cook a Wolf, people would be waiting in a line outside at like 4:30pm. And if you were the last person, it was like a 2.5 hour wait. And then they’d come in and order like a chickpea salad, a pasta and maybe one other thing and I would think: that could not have been worth the wait. I own the restaurant and I wouldn’t have done that!”
The Stowells finally switched to reservations after realizing they were alienating the very people they were striving to serve: their neighbors.
“We felt like being a neighborhood restaurant and supporting our neighbors was really important to us, but we weren’t giving our regulars the opportunity to dine with us.”
Manolin, which was named one of Bon Appétit’s 10 Best Restaurants eight months after it opened, attracting big crowds in the aftermath, is one of those restaurants that does not take reservations. Fortunately, the wait is usually only an hour on weekends, and there’s always a place for people to hang out and have a drink while they wait.
“And yes, we lose a lot of folks who want a reservation,” says co-owner Joe Sundberg. “I have had some pretty epic discussions with guests who don’t agree with a walk-in only philosophy. But that’s why we need places that take reservations! There are nights when you just need to know you have a solid plan.”
Sundberg says the upside to reservations is predictability, and predictability is needed in many restaurants. “It really just comes down to philosophy and the intent behind your place. A slow night in a walk-in-only place feels really slow. But a busy night leaves everyone feeling energized, including customers.”
And that infectious energy is exactly what Sundberg and his team envisioned for Manolin when it opened in early December 2014. It’s an important aspect to the restaurant he believes would be hampered by a reservation system.
“We wanted as many people through our door as possible to keep the place humming and alive. Our largest tables only seat 6 comfortably, the tables don’t move, a lot of the seating is at the bar, we’re mostly geared for parties of 2-4, and it is all intentional. None of these things are conducive to taking reservations.”
There’s also the chronic scenario of walking into an empty restaurant and being told by the hostess that there’s no tables available. It’s happened to all of us, including Sundberg. “I have walked into a number of places in the five o’clock to six o’clock hour in the last few years. At places that take reservations, this scenario has happened more than once: We walk in with no reservation. All but one table in the place is empty. There is no room for us, however, as all of the tables are slated for reservation in the next 30-60 minutes. Those poor lonely tables, quietly awaiting their guests. They will be unfilled for nearly half of the night’s service.”
One of the upsides of not taking restaurant reservations? There are less no-shows, according to Baker.
“I think when reservations have to come in over the phone and people have to work a little harder to get them, I think you’re less likely to get a no-show. I think with OpenTable, the cold online reservation portal allows people to do a lot of things, like make reservations very incidentally, where they grab a table just so they have more options.”
Baker’s advice to anyone who is using an online reservations system: Don’t make all of your tables reservable. Leave some space for walk-ins. “The reason for that is that you can’t predict the way your restaurant is going to work on any given night. You do have some no-shows, some late arrivals, you have all of these variables you can’t control. Walk-in space gives you the ability to fill in around that and increase your capacity.”
In a plot twist nobody saw coming, Sundberg says one of Manolin’s busier nights was on an evening when he assumed everyone would want a solid plan. “Manolin was busy from open to close on Valentine’s Day. No reservations works for us and many of our diners. We are so lucky.”
In a city where people love to complain about waits of any length, that last sentence certainly rings true.