The Truth About Restaurant Reservations

Making a reservation at a busy restaurant can be a total clusterfuck. You have your favorite place on speed dial thirty days in advance and when you finally get through they’re already booked solid? But it’s my mother-in-law’s 65th birthday and she loves your restaurant!! You beg and plead on the phone but to no avail. Even with advance notice, why is it so difficult for the average Joe to get the reservations they want? Some reasons are obvious like supply and demand. There just aren’t enough tables to accommodate everyone. But a few hidden truths are a little more eye-opening. Here are five secrets you might not know about restaurant reservations:

Restaurants hold tables for VIP guests and regulars – Cultivating a loyal clientele is critical to any restaurant’s success. We know where our bread is buttered and will reward our prodigal customers with preferred status. This often results in blocking access to certain tables to ensure they’re available for valued guests. Restaurants also benefit from having celebrity clientele whose schedules are often too unpredictable to book ahead of time. If we don’t cater to the needs of our most important regulars, they’ll take their notoriety and loyalty somewhere else. A nifty trick: Call for same day reservations in the early afternoon since they may release those last minute holds and make them available to the public.

Private concierge services monopolize prime reservation times for their clients – You probably didn’t know but there are companies who get paid to reserve tables at exclusive restaurants. Corporate clientele will fork over top dollar for access to popular reservations without the hassle of advance planning. Whether you realize or not, every time you attempt to make a reservation at a busy restaurant you are competing with shadowy gangs of professional concierge services who are paid to beat you to the punch. These relationships are usually mutually beneficial which gives concierges priority status over random suckers.

No tables are available because of your party size – Restaurants only have a finite number of tables that can accommodate specific denominations. If you’re calling for a party of six, you may be told no because the restaurant only has a few tables in the dining room that can comfortably fit six people. For parties of four, on the other hand, they may have significantly more availability. It’s worth asking the reservationist if there are smaller or larger tables available when you’re booking and adjusting your party size accordingly.

Restaurant Reservations Can Be Soul-CrushingYou need a connection to get in – Some restaurants like Rao’s in New York City only open their doors to insiders. You either know someone who has a table there or you’re eating somewhere else. Loyalty is the best way to build these relationships. That’s how they did it back in the day at Rao’s and that’s how they do it now everywhere else. Don’t expect preferred status without earning it. Restaurant relationships are just like relationships you have with significant others. Expecting intimacy without trust leads to rejection. Take time to get to know the staff, tip them well and eventually, if you’re lucky, they’ll be ready to consummate the relationship.

Restaurants have a dossier on you in their reservation system and your record may be worse than you think – Management will never forget that time you took up a table for five hours on a busy Saturday night or when everyone in your party got shit-faced on 1942 tequila shots and someone puked in the bathroom. Most reservationists will ask your name before offering you a booking so they may access any biographical information you have on file. If you’ve dined there before and have a prior record, a restaurant may mark you as “Do Not Accommodate.” Even a spotty history of cancellations or no-shows may cause you to be blackballed. Keep your rap sheet clean, and you should have nothing to worry about.

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Why Waiting on Waiters is Annoying

There’s an unwritten code among restaurant folk, when someone from another restaurant comes to our house, we do our best to treat them like family. We refill their wine glasses without their asking, spoil them with an extra dessert or send after dinner drinks to show solidarity. Of course, there are occasions when we don’t know we’re serving an industry person, but it’s usually pretty easy to figure out because they’re annoying.

Here are ten easy ways you can spot restaurant people from a mile away:

1. They go out of their way to avoid telling you they work in a restaurant even though it’s totally obvious. – You think we can’t hear you whispering about how you have the same Chateauneuf du Pape on your restaurant’s wine list for $10 cheaper? We knew from the minute you proudly announced, “I’d love to start with an aperitif” that you were undercover. No one uses the word aperitif unless they work in a restaurant.

2. They will eventually end up finally telling you they work in a restaurant, then get upset if you don’t comp anything. – We see you scrutinizing the bill looking for freebies. You’re probably also trying to figure out how generous you should tip, but we also know you’ll spend the next two hours bitching about how you can’t believe we charged you for everything. Then you’ll rant for another two hours about how your restaurant is waaay more generous to industry people.

3. They assume that whatever they do at their restaurant you also do at your restaurant. – “You don’t have tartar sauce for the crab cakes?” they’ll ask. No, we don’t have tartar sauce. It’s really too bad that you work at a shitty pub and they serve their crab cakes with tartar, mate. Have the remoulade we gave you and shut the (bleep) up.

4. They ask too many obnoxiously detailed questions – “Do you know if the kitchen uses Maldon Salt?” You can’t be serious.

5. They pretend to know a lot about food and wine but they really only know about the food and wine where they work. – Will you please stop asking if the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation? You don’t even know what that means. It’s really great that you just learned about this in wine class but this isn’t Kendall-Jackson, just order the damn Chardonnay.

6. They always pronounce ethnic dishes on the menu with an over-the-top accent. – There’s no need for you to sound like Berlusconi every time you order a pasta dish. Simmer down, Caravaggio.

7. They name drop staff members who haven’t worked at your restaurant in years. – Tim? Who’s Tim? Yeah… sorry… there’s no one named Tim here anymore.

8. They hate people who stay late in restaurants yet when they dine out they’re always the last table. – You must’ve forgotten the tirade you went on last week when some douchebag sat there with empty cocktail glasses an hour after paying the check because that’s exactly what you’re doing right now.

9. They always order Fernet Branca. – Even though we all know it’s disgusting.

10. They pay with a credit card and tip in cash. – Restaurant people know that cash tips don’t always have to be declared which helps avoid taxes. Not to mention that most waiters’ credit cards are probably maxed out anyway.

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The Hidden Cost of Hospitality

When restaurant people have grouchy fits about bad tables, our complaints usually fall on deaf ears. Everyone loves to remind us that we shouldn’t complain because taking care of people—even if they are difficult—is what we get paid to do. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s not just outsiders who revel in telling us to shut up and do our job, industry people are guilty of it too. The most orthodox hospitality professionals can be less forgiving than the entitled guests we serve. It’s just a bizarre reflex that kicks in for some of us when we talk about hospitality in unicorn terms and I, for one, am sick of it. I’m tired of people making excuses for guest’s improprieties when, undeniably, if the most felonious among them behaved this way in any setting other than a restaurant they wouldn’t be tolerated. It is not our “job” to facilitate people’s bad behavior.

Being mistreated by paying customers isn’t part of the job as much as it is our allowing them to mistreat us. Part of the problem is that, as an industry, we’ve convinced ourselves that unconditional love for the guest—even when it requires self-degradation—is the nexus of hospitality. We live for the glory of taking the high road and the promise of turning frowns upside down. But there is a hidden cost to our psychology—like NFL players who take too many blows to the head—not only in absorbing the trauma but also in believing that we shouldn’t have the right to stand up for ourselves to make it stop. It takes its toll on your self-image and also begs the question: How far should a restaurant staff be expected to go to please someone who doesn’t deserve it? Is there a threshold when a guest’s behavior should render them undeserving of accommodation?

The truth is that hospitality work shouldn’t have to include accommodating people who are undeserving. We shouldn’t have to “turn people around” when they are perfectly capable of turning themselves around without being coddled. Unfortunately, we’re still expected to be accommodating even in the worst cases of guests misbehaving. When someone shows up to a restaurant drunk and unruly, the staff treads lightly—careful not to bruise the person’s inebriated ego. We routinely pacify guests who throw tantrums about their food taking too long or being seated past their reservation time. We sidestep silencing noisy tables who are disrupting other guests because we fear we might offend the noisemakers. The list of ways that we’re forced to cower in the name of good service is endless.

Restaurant work often requires a firm hand, but because of these antiquated hospitality credos we struggle to use it authoritatively. When entitled VIPs or diva celebrities come in, kitchen and waitstaff are expected to break whatever rules necessary to make them happy because… well… that’s our job. In fine dining, we use the abbreviation “WTW” (whatever they want) and, in the wrong hands, it’s a blank check to satisfy the most sadistic impulses. When the dust settles, they leave happy but we leave physically and psychologically exhausted.

The exhaustion stems from giving up so much of yourself to please others that you end up depleting your own emotional resources. When you spend every night bending for other people, it’s only a matter of time before you break. But all of this is exacerbated by the fact that, as an industry, we don’t speak up when we’re asked to bend too much. If we complain about being mistreated, then we’ve committed the cardinal sin of putting our needs above the people we serve.

It’s not all the guest’s fault. We could take better care of ourselves in house, too. Combustible chefs could slow their roll. Managers could stop micro-managing. The staff could stop drinking themselves into oblivion after work every night. But who can blame us for needing an exhaust pipe for all this aggression? To decompress after a hard shift, sometimes it seems like only a dirty martini will make us feel human again. But no matter how much we self-medicate it doesn’t change the fact that the source of our psychic congestion is the inherent imbalance that good service demands. Over time, putting ourselves second has a way of making us feel second best. Even though the customer isn’t always right, they are most definitely always first.

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