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.

Making The First Move

The relationship you have with your waiter is remarkably similar to a first date. You’ve never met before. Someone usually sets you up. You meet in a restaurant. There’s a good chance they could be a total douchebag. If it turns out you don’t get along, you have to pretend you like each other for the next two hours. Like bad dates, you have to find ways to make the best of it.

Try not to forget that your waiter has been on thousands more of these bad “dates” than you have. He’s probably already had a handful of bad ones the same night he met you. Many waiters behave like jaded singles—we feel like we’re never going to have a special table who loves us for who we are. It’s not easy to open up and be vulnerable when you date so many assholes.

As a diner, one subtle thing you can do to stand out from the crowd is to make the first move. You don’t have to just sit there waiting for servers to come over and start talking to you. Speak up! There are a few good “pick-up” lines you can use to disarm their defenses. Of course, you have an equal chance of crashing and burning as you would trying to pick up somebody at a bar; no strategy is foolproof. But like a first date, you have nothing to lose. Here are a few phrases we recommend springing on your server next time you sit down:

“We’re really excited to be here!” – It’s hard for even the most disgruntled server to hate people who are enthusiastic about their dining experience. Since most diners are not even paying attention, it will come as a relief to your server that you actually care. Even if you don’t, pretend like you do. Most conscientious hospitality professionals will feel worse letting down an excited guest than someone who arrives to the table ambivalent.

“I think you took care of us last time.” – It doesn’t matter that you’re lying. It doesn’t even matter that you’ve never actually been to this restaurant before. Servers don’t remember most of the people they wait on anyway. You all look the same to us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be flattered by the recognition. “Wow, I must have done a really good job last time,” the server will think to himself. Pretending you recognize him will juice the waiter’s confidence and encourage him to give your table a little extra love.

“We’ve never been here before!” – Waiters are always a little bit more gentle when they’re taking someone’s restaurant virginity. They will often ask you, “Is this your first time dining with us?” It’s annoying to have to hear it so often, but preempting the question will change the dynamic. The meta-message you’re sending is that you’re open to suggestions. Most waiters will savor the opportunity to play a more prominent role in your experience.

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“Did this restaurant used to be [insert phony restaurant name]?” – There’s usually some kind of backstory behind every restaurant space. Few waiters will skip an opportunity to show off a little knowledge for their guests. Even if you don’t really care to know the answer, ask anyway! Small talk can be annoying but disrupting the rote pattern of the server’s welcome and steering the conversation into something other than food and drink will be a refreshing change of pace.

“Are you one of the owners?” – Don’t spring this line on your waiter too early. You’ll seem desperate. Most of the time, waiters get treated like pieces of meat. The ones who have a more proprietary work ethic sit around most nights like Cinderella wishing that someone, ANYONE will acknowledge their work. Asking if they’re an owner is a subtle yet effective way of flattering without pandering. If you sell it really well, you’ll have your waiter in your back pocket the rest of the night.

Size Does Matter

If the number of people in your party changes last minute, let the restaurant know in advance. The Maitre’d or host may have a specific table planned for your party and unexpectedly arriving with more or less people may throw that plan out of whack.  Don’t just assume that the restaurant will have a larger table to accommodate your augmented group. Showing up with less people, on the other hand, may result in the restaurant wasting precious real estate by holding a larger table for you than is needed. It isn’t as easy as you think to get all parties seated on-time and situated in the appropriate tables over the course of a given evening. Throwing a wrench in our plan could end up adversely affecting your experience and/or sabotage some other innocent party’s. It isn’t fair that another group’s experience should suffer because of your lack of consideration. Don’t expect to be seated incompletely either.  Make sure your party arrives together or as close to the same time as possible. Seating incomplete parties can disrupt fluid service and most busy restaurants, worried about the potential domino effect, won’t do it.