Playing the reservation game

Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings discuss restaurant reservation scalpers, cancellation fees and what to do when you can't get into the hottest concept in town.
restaurant table
Online reservation trading brings a new twist to an old game. | Photo: Shutterstock.

Nancy: Sorry, Lisa, I really meant to be in touch earlier, but I kinda lost track of time. I’ve been pretty busy crafting a winning Resy bio, the kind that will help me snag a coveted seat at a really hot restaurant.

It’s just one of the strategies that I read about in a Wall Street Journal story awhile back that offered tips and tricks for landing a hard-to-get restaurant reservation.

The Journal quoted a resourceful New Yorker, who dines repeatedly in the same spot with the objective of becoming a regular. To turbocharge her chances of securing a future reservation, she tips really well, smiles a lot and secures contact info that allows her to reach out directly to remind staff of her regular-ness and to score the desired table.

My favorite tactic by far, however, came from a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, one of the most exciting dining destinations east of the Mississippi. The diner in question uploaded a photo and short bio to his Resy account indicating that he used to work in the restaurant industry. And if this isn’t ingratiating enough to get him a good spot on the waitlist, he is extra enthusiastic and courteous to the host. Because, he explains, we only have a minute to make a good impression.

So that’s why I’m taking a selfie with a collie and a kid with big eyes. When restaurants like New York City’s Saint Theo’s report waitlists of more than 1,500 on weekend nights, I figure I need all the help I can get, even if it means borrowing Lassie and a baby.

Of course, these person-to-person approaches seem positively quaint given the boom in bot-driven brokerages that are swooping in and grabbing scores of seats before the rest of us can even access a booking site. These tables are subsequently resold, often at an eye-watering premium to a hungry and apparently inflation-resistant dining populace. 

We’re talking here about brokers like Appointment Trader, Front of House, Table Concierge and Dorsia that provide access to restaurant reservations for a price.

I’m all for entrepreneurship—after all, our business is built on it. But it feels to me that something’s gone haywire in the post-Covid world of hospitality.

A story that appeared last year in The Seattle Times on this subject, for example, quoted a high roller who said he’d happily spend hundreds of dollars with these services; this, he noted, is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the $3,000 tab he’d just run up for four people at Miami’s Sexy Fish.

This all smacks of, what, elitism? Gatsby-esque excess, maybe? And it pales in comparison to the founder of one of these platforms who told The New York Times that he sees his business as “expediting intimacy.”

Um, I think that’s against the law in most places, dude, except maybe the state of Nevada.

But maybe I am overreacting, Lisa. Is this elitist and anti-democratic as critics charge—or is it simply another example of industry innovation in the post-pandemic environment?

Lisa: New York City seems to be the epicenter of this, but I live in Los Angeles, where there is a long tradition of having to “know a guy” who could get you into the hottest restaurants. It helps if you’re a celebrity—but not just anyone with a line in “The Bachelor,” season three. Tables are only open for A-listers.

Everyone else has to rely on their agents, who now probably use Appointment Trader to keep clients happy.

My uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Aniston, of course, allowed me to breeze into top spots for years, but as soon as her stock began to dip, it was back to scrabbling for Tuesday night slots at 9:45 p.m. They should never have cancelled “Friends.”

But even in cities like Portland, where Eater notes that getting a reservation is hardly a blood sport, these reservation scalpers are still trying to make it a thing to get into restaurants like Gregory Gourdet’s Kann.

I guess I respect the independent entrepreneur who has the spark to build this into a profitable side hustle, on one hand. Some told the New Yorker they “play dinner reservations” like others play Candy Crush on their phones, while watching TV, reselling them for easy money.

Just for fun, I looked at booking a dinner at Tre Dita in Chicago during the upcoming NRA Show. That’s Los Angeles chef’s Evan Funke’s Tuscan steakhouse with Lettuce Entertain You, and it looks fabulous.

OpenTable tells me the restaurant doesn’t take online reservations so far in advance. Yet bookings are listed on Appointment Trader for a suggested starting bid of $155 on the night in question. The website says, “1,076 Bot Operators, Hustlers and other Mercenaries will work on filling this bid.”

Or, for a suggested starting bid of $233, five of Chicago’s finest five-star concierges will be “notified of my interest” in Tre Dita. I guess they’re in on the game.

So, yes, Nancy, this is elitist and anti-democratic, and Gatsby-esque. And it smacks of an open scam by the scalpers.

The question is: What can restaurants do about it. And do they even want to stop what no doubt reduces no-shows and ensures a well-heeled clientele?

NancyDamn, Lisa, I hate it when you ask intelligent questions, like what recourse do operators have if they disapprove of the practice?

Last year, Nick Kokonas, founder and former CEO of Tock, threatened to sue Appointment Trader. However, according to The New York Times, the current CEO of Tock has declined to pursue a lawsuit because he doesn’t view the site as competition.

His reasoning: Tock is democratic, so everyone has an equal shot at scoring a table. This is quite different from the brokers, who are catering only to the privileged few. 

Plus, the legality of reservation brokerages is especially problematic, as the same Times story reported. While the whole practice may smell suspiciously like scalping, lawyers in New York, which has particularly stringent anti-scalping laws, say that these pertain only to tickets in the sports and entertainment arenas. 

And then there have been off-the-record reports of restaurateurs who are secretly pleased to have a full house without any pesky and damaging no-shows. 

The whole no-show thing is, of course, the straw that can break an operator’s back. And it’s a problem that has grown dramatically worse post Covid. 

A study in the U.K. by Barclays Bank last year, for example, indicated that half of the 200 restaurants it surveyed experienced a 40% rise in no-shows versus the prior year. And cancellations with less than 24 hours notice jumped 35%. It’s as if basic reservation etiquette got shoved aside with mask and distancing mandates.

This brings us to the dicey question of cancellation fees.

Restaurateurs hate levying them, and patrons hate paying them. 

The growing acrimony around the practice has been widely covered. Some no-showing diners, angered that they’d been charged for failure to keep their reservation, have locked their credit cards before the charge can go through or disputed the charge after the fact. 

Or, perhaps worse, they’ve gone on Yelp or Google Reviews and dumped all over the operation. 

Proponents of the practice argue that it’s common for some businesses to require, say, a 48- or 24-hour cancellation notice. Failure to comply means you’ll be billed. That’s true of a many medical practices and service providers, who explain the rule at booking. 

And while it pains me, really pains me, to compare the restaurant industry to airlines, air carriers never miss a chance to levy change or cancellation fees. 

Do you think this is something restaurants should embrace on a broad scale?

LisaNo, Nancy, I don’t. And not because it’s people like me, for whom visits to these high-end restaurants are a very special occasion, and who might get burned when life gets in the way of showing up for a dining occasion.

It’s because there are plenty of people wealthy enough to not care if they have to pay a cancellation fee. So, in the end, I’m not sure it would change their behavior.

But I have a solution to all of this, Nancy, and it’s one that Nikita Richardson in The New York Times writes about this week.

You and I both know well that, in a world with so many hot restaurants that people are so desperate to get into, there is an even bigger world of excellent restaurants that, for whatever reason, are not as hot.

Richardson calls these the “dupes,” or the equally high-quality substitutes.

They are in every city, not just New York. They may have been the hot restaurant at some point, but then they settle into a stratosphere of being just a great restaurant. Some may never have been discovered by the It crowd, and that’s all good for Not-Its like me.

You don’t have to turn to scalpers to get into these dupes. They may not be the place to see and be seen. But they offer a reliably terrific experience, great food, a good value.

These are the stars in my dining-out world; the restaurants I follow through the stormy seas of new concepts.

I’ll take an old dependable dupe over a hot-new concept any day of the week.

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