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Jan 17, 2001 10:39 AM

Article in today's NY Times about getting restaurant reservations

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Anyone read Adam Nagourney's article in the Dining In section of today's Times about trying to get a reservation? The gist was that some hot Manhattan restaurants have begun using automated telephone systems for taking reservations, and many that still greet a caller personally make it difficult to get through.

In his article, he mentions Lotus, Esca, Jean Georges, Tavern on the Green, Russian Tea Room, Daniel, 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and Prune.

He also describes the voice mail routine a caller has to navigate when calling Prune, then at the end of the article he says that Prune does have a number that is answered by a live person, but it is only given to backers and friends of the restaurant.

I've had some very frustrating experiences in trying to make restaurant reservations in New York, so I can appreciate what Mr. Nagourney describes in his article. Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through such a demeaning process, in order to pay an exorbitant sum for a single meal?

I must say in all fairness, however, that I have used Open Table online to make reservations six or seven times, and I have found that process to be almost pain free, at least for me. If I request a date/time that isn't available, Open Table lets me know right away, and I can try other dates/times or other restaurants without much effort. Every reservation I've made through Open Table has been honored without problem, and each reservation gets me points that I can accrue towards a meal (I think). I don't have anything to do with Open Table other than using their website, and I prefer that approach so much more than steaming while either being on hold or navigating through automated phone systems.

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  1. Well if a restaurant makes potential customers jump through such hoops, then why bother? Or is this a 'no pain, no gain' scenario?

    Any investor with half a brain should be wondering how s/he's going to get back his/her stake if the only people who can book a table easily are other investors or 'friends'. Restaurants thrive on word-of-mouth and repeat business. No matter how much praise a critic lavishes, a Chowhound who is treated snottily and also has to pay through the nose (sorry for the pun) for the privilege should not go back.

    Or perhaps backers don't care - they're just looking for something of a private club, a place to go that makes them feel special and important. And if this is the case, then we 'little people' will never be welcome anyway.

    Any backers out there care to set me straight on this? I am very curious, because if I were an investor in a restaurant - which seems to be one of the hardest, highest risk, most 'perishable' businesses going - I'd be answering the phones myself and doing my best to make sure all of my customers were thrilled to bits. In other words - from a businessperson's POV, before plunking down a wad of cash, I'd make sure I agreed with the management's customer-acquisition and retention strategy.

    To George's point about online booking services - I have to say I'm a huge fan too. That's how I made all of my reservations for the Chowhound-sanctioned restaurants in NYC over the very busy Christmas and New Year's.

    I used three different services as I wanted to test 'em out. I was not disappointed. In the one case where the time I requested was not available, the very polite email response from the booking service offered me three other choices. They handled a cancellation without any hassle, too.

    And all of this was done at *my* convenience - i.e. I fired off emails at what was the equivalent of 3AM New York time, and spent a total of about on minute on line for six restaurants. As a result - I cannot comment on the voicemail/live greeter anomalies on the other end as I didn't have to deal with any! As far as I'm concerned, I was treated really well from beginning to end.

    Hope these booking services don't go the way of other dot coms though it all sounds pretty ominous.

    Restaurants that can't be bothered to handle the 'first mile' properly take heed: outsource this all-important task to professionals who are keen for the business and pay them handsomely rather than being cheapskates and leaving this to a 20 year old aspiring model who was mostly likely out clubbing all night and probably doesn't eat your food anyway.

    (OK that's a cheap shot but you all get my drift. I realise the person taking the booking is not always the same person as the person who greets you when you walk through the door, but the point is that first impressions are critical.)

    Recently I was confronted with a specimen of aforementioned sneering supermodeldom, who, by her attitude made it abundantly clear that she certainly didn't *need* her job as greeter at the restaurant in St Martin's Hotel in London. Rather she must have been doing it for the thrill and acting experience. Even though I had confirmed five minutes before by mobile phone with my hosts that they were already seated and had told the receptionist to show me to their table, she had a lot of trouble following my request: "Hi - I'm {my name} and am meeting {name of person who made reservation} who is already here." She got very flustered, and asked three times if I had a reservation...finally I said, "I think I'll just go in and find them myself" the coat check person tried lamely to excuse her colleague, saying "She had a shoot really early this morning and we're really busy tonight..."

    Needless to say I don't think I'll go back. Too frustrating.


    8 Replies
    1. re: magnolia

      Maybe the coat check person meant to say, "She had a shot (or two) really early this morning..."

      I agree with everything Magnolia says. I have given up on restaurants that make it difficult to get a reservation. I simply will not beg them to take my money as they treat me like I'm their freeloading brother-in-law. There are too many places in New York City in which to have a good meal to allow myself to be put through all that.

      But as long as people *are* willing to put up with such nonsense, the situation will not change. Imagine how downright friendly some of these places would become overnight if the phones stopped ringing.

      1. re: George Lynch

        Goerge I agree with both you and Magnolia. The sad fact of the matter is that backers often know zip about food or business and are in it for the "social climbing". Many folks are like sheep and flock to the well dressed herd, which is why owners don't give a damn. Pack the place with the "right people" is their mantra.
        Years ago I opened a small cafe on upper Madison Avenue as a consultant. I was very pleased one very busy night when a backer showed up with a cover girl on his arm and demanded a table. He happened to be a TV anchorman. He told the hostess I own this place. The owner came up and with a thick New York accent and said,"====, you see that awning out front? that's about what you own . Call and make a reservation like everybody else."I think this the exeption rather than the rule.

        1. re: Scottso

          I hate to take the restaurateurs' side in this, but at a certain point there's only so much they can do. There are four women working the phones at Nobu during the day -- I've seen 'em -- and it's still impossible to get through. Should they hire eight receptionists? Twelve?

          (What they in fact did was to open an annex that takes no reservations at all. And you still can't get through.)

          Of course, there is nothing more annoying than spending 25 minutes on the phone trying to get a table at a simple bistro.

          1. re: Pepper

            I always think that people who deal with this nonsense are gluttons for punishment or slaves to fashion. As do many other people here at CH, I eat out several times a week in Manhattan, usually deliciously, and seldom with a reservation planned more than 24 hours in advance... There's no shortage of places to choose from. I deal with attitude all day long at work - who needs it at night!

            It's important to remember that only an incredibly rare restaurant stays so hot that it remains difficult to get a table after a few months to a year - I remember thinking "I'll never get to eat at Bouley" but by the end, a planned in advance res. was quite easy to come by, and we could eat there as "regularly" as we could afford to... And for those who just can't wait for the hype to move on, lunch is usually MUCH simpler - I ate lunch at Nobu many times before I was able to do dinner there.

            1. re: Elaine
              yvonne johnson

              this has happened a few times and I still say nothing (i don't want to spoil my app, i guess). This is the scenario: you go into rest, reservation obtained, get to the lectern thing, and you say your name and then the phone goes. The m'd/deputy whoever picks up the phone and scribbles things in notebook (could be a reservation or a date, I don't know, but it's irrelevant) related to on the phone conversation right in front of you. Why not say, "please hold on" to the caller, seat the guests and then return to call? I agree with pepper that it must be horrible to get hundreds of calls a day. I don't know what it is (mystique of technology?), but answering the phone sometimes takes priority over speaking to the live customer in front of the m/d.

          2. re: Scottso

            That owner deserves a medal!!!

          3. re: George Lynch

            I eat out practically every night. I never, ever, make a reservation. I just go into a restaurant and ask to be seated. If they say they are booked, or that I cannot get in without a reservation, I simply go elsewhere. The restaurant business in New York is just too competitive for me to even bother with calling for a reservation. Once when i was in the Tribeca area I went into Chanterelle, without a reservation. It just happened they has a table. I ate there. Another time, they were fully booked. No big deal. I simply walked down to Spartina and ate there. I really cannot understand the masochistic attitude of New Yorkers who put up with all this restaurant attitude. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

            1. re: walter

              Well, that approach works for you, but it doesn't work for everyone. Many, probably most, have definite time and location needs, and we want to be assured that there will be an available table someplace decent during that time and in that general location. Also, when meeting people, it's so important to have a definite location in mind.

              But I do like the method you describe, and on occasion I've tried it myself. I never got into Chanterelle or anyplace nearly that level, but I've had some good meals that way and I didn't spend more than a minute waiting for a table.

        2. Has anyone tried booking through If so, how'd it turn out?

          3 Replies
          1. re: Tatyana

            I used to make a reservation for Babbo. It was wonderful-I did have to go back and forth a few times to find a date (which was a month in advance) but since I wasn't in a hurry it was fine. The only odd thing that happened was that they gave me a number to call the day before the reservation that was no longer live and had no area code. However, I called Babbo to be sure and they already had me on the books.
            So, it may have a kink or two but it worked nicely for me. I would use them again!

            1. re: MLogan

              My son used Open Table to reserve at Thalia for his sister and me last month. They sent me an email saying I'd been invited to dinner by him, what time, and the option to click on a map to the restaurant. It worked great so far as Open Table's part was concerned. And Thalia was fine, they took us exactly on time. The hangup came when our umbrellas (it was pouring) and coats were no where to be found. Finally my son and daughter went back to the coat check area and retrieved everything. But, man, did we ever have to run to catch the curtain at the theater. And we were soaked to the skin. Perhaps Thalia has a better system for coats et al. now. But Open Table was fine. pat

            2. re: Tatyana

              Yes - I used restaurantrow; Savvydiner; and opentable. They all offered the same exact service for different restaurants and all worked very well. I'm sure there are also others...

            3. Gee, Life used to be simple but I guess restaurants that achieve superstar status can have an automated phone line just like my doctors, dentist and super who are all in heavy demand by people.

              Restaurant "snobbery" is not new - I recall years ago a chic restaurant in Los Angeles had an unlisted number. So one had to really be savvy and "in the know" for the privilege of eating there. How elite and pretentious is that?

              Anyway, if I really want to make a reservation in Manhattan, I just go directly to the restaurant and make it. This has never failed - period, paragraph.

              1. Hey, you chowhounds jumped on that thread like maggots on a piece of rotten meat. I'm so, so, sorry you have trouble getting into a $100 per person restaurant in time to make the curtain with your theatreeee tickets. You call yourselves chowhounds, and the only places you want to get into are the most overhyped places around. Hell, there are dozens, or maybe even hundreds of places where you can blow a similar amount within walking distance, and if you give the address to the limo driver, I'm sure she can find it. Get a brain and do some really chowhounding, will ya?

                11 Replies
                1. re: Aardvark
                  yvonne johnson

                  Who rattled aardvark's cage?

                  1. re: yvonne johnson

                    Hee hee.

                    Harsh though he might have expressed himself, Aardvark does have a point.

                    There's been a lot of talk lately about getting into "hot" places, and while "hot" places can sometimes be good (and hence fully deserve discussion on Chowhound), there are indeed zillions of alternatives--places outside the spotlight which have been discussed here where dedicated people make wondrous chow (and could use our support). And there are many such places that have NOT been discussed which need to be sniffed out, which is one of the main missions of the serious chowhound.

                    So while I don't share Aardvark's anger or disdain, I understand why it's surprising to see a bunch of "how to get into the hot places" threads here, since such discussion can sometimes ring of hype and culinary conventionality (when chowhounds tend to avoid both). That said, the food at Nobu, to pick one example, is really reservations strategizing is something chowhounds must sometimes face.

                    Since deliciousness takes many forms, it's best to open up and discuss all realms...including the more highly publicized places (especially if they're GOOD!). But I hope people are also moved to be a bit more adventurous and independent in their dining, because there's such an amazing array out there. We have a great resources here to help anyone who wants to dive in!


                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      Sorry, Aardvark and Jim, I think you both missed the point of this thread. (Aardvark displays his/her fundamental ignorance throughout the rant, but I'm surprised at you, Jim.)

                      This thread is about the article published in Wednesday's Times, and the topic of that article was about restaurant "attitude" when it comes to trying to get reservations, not about how to get into "hot" restaurants. Yeah, the restaurants he mentions in his article could be described as "hot", but so what? His point was that automated telephone systems in place of live reservationists is problematic and essentially unfriendly. And he wondered in print if this is the wave of the future.

                      Some of the messages in this thread were about using online reservations services, and others related anecdotes about bad experiences. What's the problem?

                      Are you saying we shouldn't discuss articles like that one because it conflicts with the Chowhound code of honor or something? Thanks for the lecture, folks, but no thanks.

                      How you and Aardvark can find something in this discussion to cause you to jump all over the participants says more about you guys than it does about those posting.

                      1. re: George Lynch

                        Didn't mean to unpleasantly surprise you, George. I was going to compose a reply until I got to this part:

                        "Are you saying we shouldn't discuss articles like that one because it conflicts with the Chowhound code of honor or something?"

                        And then I realized that you'd given my message even less of a careful read than I admit to having given this thread.


                        1. re: Jim Leff

                          I'm going to have to side partially with Jim, and partially on the "other" side. Mostly I agree. Where I disagree is in whether Aardvark really had a point.

                          Aardvark seems to have missed some of the chowhound ethos.....It's not about, IMHO, JUST finding the out of the way, never heard of, tiny place serving food from 2-5 on mondays and 5-9 other days.....It's ALSO about which of the "haute cuisine" places are good or bad, both in terms of food and attitude.

                          And while I am willing to put up with a certain amount of attitude in places which are cheap and delicious, I don't see why we should do so in expensive places, at all.

                          Also, Aardvark, while this thread was jumped on, so was the one about Papaya King vs. Gray's Papaya.....and meals don't get cheaper than that!

                          1. re: Peter

                            Peter--I don't see that we disagree the slightest bit in terms of chow philosophy. We just disagree on Aardvark's intent. But that's Aardvark's issue, anyway!


                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              I've got to say Aarvark has a point, though he put it rather oddly. The pursuit of trendy restaurants annointed by New York magazine, the Times, and other media--and in spite of what Mr. Lynch (good name) says, that is what the thread is about--doesn't sound very chowhoundish to me. Maybe people obsessed with getting into those places should be dubbed "curs de cuisine" rather than chowhounds. A better example of this trend is the Outer Boroughs board. I have often been annoyed to see endless speculation and discussion of fakey Carroll and Smith Street places, while other new Brooklyn restaurants without publicists go unnoticed. There's nothing morally wrong, of course, with spending your time trying to get into Jean Georges, Esca, etc., but it shows a certain lack of imagination, don't you think?

                              1. re: Anthony B

                                Anthony, let me begin by thanking you for the nice comment on my name. In all modesty, I didn't do anything other than show up one fine day some nine months down the road after an earlier Mr. Lynch (my dad) had an intimate moment or two with Mrs. Lynch (my mom). But then they had no more to do with it (the name Lynch) than I, so I will gladly accept your very nice compliment.

                                Now allow me to respectfully disagree with your contention that this thread is all about the pursuit of trendy restaurants. I just don't see how you or Jim Leff or the boorish Aardvark can infer that from the messages in this thread. I still say it is about the process of making reservations at restaurants in general, prompted by the article that appeared in the NY Times. The restaurants I mentioned in the original post were those the author mentioned in his article.

                                There seems to be a kind of political correctness expressed here that if something comes from the NY Times or New York magazine or Zagat's, it must be contempible and therefore not up to chowhound standards.

                                I ask you to point out to me where in Mr. Nagourney's article you find him anointing the practice of pursuing trendy restaurants. I further ask you to point out to me the message(s) in this thread that are promoting that practice.

                                You said you have often been annoyed by the many discussions of "fakey" restaurants on Smith Street on the Outer Borough board. You stated that other new Brooklyn restaurants without publicists go unnoticed. I don't see how a discussion on a Smith street restaurant ("fakey" or not) comes at the expense of other restaurants. You are certainly free to post messages about such unnoticed places and to stimulate discussion about them.

                            2. re: Peter

                              Pls join me on Site Talk

                            3. re: Jim Leff

                              Actually, Jim, I did read your post carefully and more than once before I replied, and I do admit that it ruffled my feathers. I was surprised and disappointed that you used Aardvark's unpleasant and inaccurate post to lecture us.

                              I got my back up about being branded a groupie for no good reason. Aarkvark's comments didn't bother me because it's obvious Aardvark goes off at the mouth without thinking, but your endorsement of those comments did rankle.

                              I've read a lot of your posts in the short time I've been on Chowhound and the image I've formed of you is that of an articulate, thoughtful, opinionated and reasonable man. I always enjoy reading what you have to say even when I disagree with you, so I was doubly let down when I read your message. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced you hadn't read the thread fully, but that was after I had posted my response.

                      2. re: Aardvark

                        Welcome to the rotting meat, fellow maggot.