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Thursday, February 28, 2013 / 12:00 PM

Our Dining Critic Criticizes the "No Reservations" Policy

Our Dining Critic Criticizes the "No Reservations" Policy

If you have waited 90 minutes in line for dinner, you, sir or madam, are a putz.

We say that with all due affection. And in your own best interest. After all, recognizing you are a putz is the first step in curing yourself.

We mention this because our editor alerted us recently to a piece in the Interweb. Two of them. The first, by food editor Michael Bauer, was a lament on the travails of visiting restaurants that do not accept reservations.

The second was a response to Bauer, by Jay Barmann, who opined that today’s Young & Hip take it for granted waits are inevitable if you’re off to—in the words of the writer—a “buzz-happy, uber-popular” eatery.

Places like Rickybobby, Outerlands, and Mission Chinese Food (right) new and presumably “uber-popular” San Francisco dining destinations, Mr. Barmann notes, all have 60-90 minute waits.

That’s why we won’t be reviewing them anytime soon. (Well, that and the fact we’ve never been able to convince Moneybags Mahe, our editor, to fund our suggested expedition, “Dining in San Fran on $1000 a Night.”)

We have reviewed restaurants that don’t accept reservations. But we haven’t liked it. We also understand why restaurants would adopt a policy of seating whoever walks in, allowing them to, in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “just sit anywhere like hippies at a love-in.” You’re running a restaurant: You’ve got food costs that are hernia-inducing in their crushing weight. INS is playing hide-and-go-seek with half your kitchen crew and servers in front are calling in to say they can’t wait tables tonight because they’ve got to bail their grandmothers out on meth charges, their new tattoos are infected, or because their chakras are out of alignment. And you’re growing ulcers for a hobby and you find three tables empty that are supposed to be filled and it’s because the clowns who made reservations have just not shown up, because, well, who the hell knows why?

We can see why you would ditch the reservation concept. Additionally, when a body’s on the phone taking reservations, that’s a body not productively employed elsewhere in the restaurant. Like bringing us more bread. Further, when your place has less floor space than the snack aisles at the Stop & Go, as many eateries do today, every empty table is like someone sticking you debit card into an ATM machine and punching the withdrawal key until the three cherries line up.

That acknowledged, restaurateurs, some of them, need to be reminded that when you volunteer to open a restaurant a) you must be willing to accept that, as with any business, you’re going to have headaches, sometimes serious ones. And b) your primary job is to cater to the needs and demands of the customers, not the other way around.

Restaurateurs argue, convincingly, that if they can fill the place every night and have lines of the putzworthy standing and waiting, why go to the trouble of reservations? Good point. In reply, we’d like them to thumb through our reviews of five and six years ago. At least half the places we reviewed in those years then are gone now. Which means either that we’re the Angel of Death in the restaurant business or that, well, sic transit gloria mundi. Which is Latin for Hasta la vista, baby. Whether they accept reservations or not, there isn’t much question the odds are stacked against the long term success of any restaurant. A reasonable reservation policy isn’t the worst step that could be taken to even those odds at least a little. Taking reservations is a sign the restaurant is serious, that it takes steps to meet the demands of diners who may conceivably have things to do in life other than stand around waiting to be fed. 

And yes, we understand that for some eating is only one aspect of dining and they are also there for “the scene,” as Mr. Barmann put it. “The No-Reservations Generation,” he says, “is obsessed with food culture and doesn’t mind fighting the crowds, and they are the ones Instagraming their every last bite and counting every restaurant visited and dishes tried like medals earned in battle.” (These people would not necessarily be putzes. They would, of course, be jackasses.)

We share some enthusiasm for “the scene.” If you’re buying, we could hang out at the magnificent bar at the DeMun Oyster Bar, sipping Peat Monster Whisky as long as your pockets are deep; we could knock off a handful of cocktails at Taste. The bar scene at the Ritz Carlton defines “classy”-- we can fit in there like gray at the Ascot for hours on end. Moreover, if you’re planning an evening out with friends that will, sometime or another, include dinner, then hanging out at a restaurant’s bar, chatting and quaffing aperitifs, is fine. In the right company, say, Salma Hayek, for example, an hour and half can go by in about ten minutes. That said, we do not go to restaurants, either to pass critical and august judgment on them or just for dinner, unless we’re hungry. We recognize that’s a wacky thought to those Instagraming warriors out waging gustatory war in search of their Main Course Medal of Honor. But when we are hungry, the thought of having to wait an hour and a half is… Well, let’s just say the results can be more disturbing than the consequences of that evening last July when the kid behind the Baskin-Robbins counter claimed they were “out” of Rocky Road.

One night we tried to review a place that doesn’t accept reservations and the wait was 40 minutes. We ate that night at a nearby restaurant. It was delicious. Utterly enjoyable. So we reviewed it. There were half a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the no-reservations restaurant that also serve delicious food and are just as enjoyable. We went back, eventually, to the restaurant, got there when it opened, and had a delightful meal. We get paid to do that, though. How many diners will find alternative dining and will tell other prospective customers about their experience? Does any restaurant actually get good “buzz-worthiness” by refusing to accept reservations?

The fact is, there are too many good restaurants in St. Louis and the world to spend much time in any one of them, waiting for a table.

The fact is, if a restaurant eschewing reservations is great, phenomenal, the gourmet’s life is not going to be tragically compromised by waiting a few months until the crowds have declined—and if the need is so terrific to be among the first who have “discovered” a place like that, then one is probably not a gourmet.

The fact is, life’s too short to be a putz.

Editor's Note: For another perspective on the reservations issue, i.e., observations and reflections of a former restaurant owner--me--click here. 

When posting, please be respectful. Avoid profanity, offensive content, and/or sales pitches. Stlmag.com reserves the right to remove any comments or to contact you if necessary.

Old to new | New to old
Feb 28, 2013 02:08 pm
 Posted by  bk777

the legendary wait for brunch on sunday in NYC has spawned a backlash -- guides like Fodor's and Frommer's now encourage diners to go someplace without a wait

Feb 28, 2013 06:37 pm
 Posted by  jomoz

I live in San Francisco. I have all the same reservations about restaurants that don't accept reservations as Lowry. A few months ago, however, a friend convinced me to check out Mission Chinese. We waited the putz-epithet-earning 90 minutes to get in.

Le sigh. It was worth it.

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