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.

How To Complain Better In Restaurants

People always say the same thing when they complain in a restaurant: “I never complain in restaurants.” Having problems with food or service has a way of putting customers on the defensive. At this point, most of us are programmed to understand that we don’t want to make enemies of the people serving us, so we usually keep our mouths shut. Complaining is a last resort. Our first thought is usually: Is there something wrong with me? You might ask someone else at the table for a second opinion to be sure. Do you think I should send this back? Do you think we should ask to speak to the manager? You will do just about everything you can to avoid being “that guy.”

Dining in a restaurant is an inherently helpless act. You are required to put your faith and trust in a group of strangers to care for one of your basic primal needs—hunger. Unfortunately, when things can go awry, people get “hangry.” Food arrives overcooked or undercooked, your order was misunderstood or service is abrasive or incompetent. Minor infractions left unchecked can devolve quickly into chaos. A colleague of mine was threatened recently by a guest when a dish with an ingredient someone was allergic to was accidentally served to the table.

It should never come to blows, of course. Thankfully, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage so it shouldn’t be necessary to throw a tantrum to get what you want. It’s important to keep in mind that the staff of a restaurant tends to be inherently skeptical of customer complaints. Because they are bombarded with so many dubious ones, management often assumes there are ulterior motives: fishing for buybacks, expecting items to be comped off the bill or just plain power tripping.

We understand that sometimes it’s necessary to express dissatisfaction. Here are a few strategies that will help you make more effective complaints:

You have a voice, use it – Don’t expect the waitstaff to read your mind. Too many situations end up in volcanic eruptions because customers bottle up their feelings until the last minute before saying something. The moment you feel there is a problem, let someone know what’s bothering you. If it’s a delay in service, the staff may have perceived that you’re comfortable with a more leisurely pace. If you have a problem with your food, don’t wait until the plates are cleared to express your dissatisfaction. Saying something immediately will give the staff an opportunity to offer you something else instead. Don’t leave unhappy if you haven’t given the staff an opportunity to remedy the situation.

Introduce yourself – Ask for the person’s name when you have an issue that needs attention. Tell them yours. Being on a first name basis with that person will make the interaction more human. An impersonal approach is unlikely to yield as positive a result. Restaurant people take their jobs very personally and we appreciate when you acknowledge us as individuals not nameless faces.

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If you send food back, don’t eat it – If something is wrong with your food, you won’t have very much credibility behind your complaint if you eat most of it. To replace a dish, the server will need to bring the unfinished product back to the chef. The chef will usually inspect the dish, sometimes taste it and almost always say you’re wrong. Regardless, if you eat most of it, the staff will assume that you are just looking for handouts. Be clear if you would like the dish to be replaced or if you would prefer to order something else. Approaching it modesty or even apologetically will minimize any backlash.

Stay cool – Relax, it’s just dinner. The old school mentality that you can’t get what you want if you don’t raise your voice is outmoded. It’s also not an effective strategy. Of course, someone might pacify you to shut you up but it will be at the expense of your relationship with the staff. Demonstrating that your goal is to avoid confrontation will help usher in a peaceful resolution. Nobody likes a bully, and restaurants are no exception. If you behave belligerently, you will be branded with a negative stigma. If they see you again, someone will say “that guy/girl was a dick last time.” It isn’t worth injuring your reputation. Some restaurants may blacklist you completely.

Step away from the table – Making a complaint in front of everyone at the table can humiliate the server and breed animosity. Sometimes a private conversation about an issue away from the table is a better approach. But there is a right way to do it. Never corner your waiter or make him feel threatened. Think of it like asking the judge for a sidebar in court when things are getting contentious. “Do you think our main courses will be arriving soon? We’ve been waiting awhile” or “I didn’t want to make a big thing about it at the table but the [whatever dish] was really salty.” Be casual about it and make it look natural—have the conversation on your way to the bathroom or in passing on your way to having a smoke.

Identify the manager – Almost every dining room has a presiding manager. They should be easily to spot—typically they’ll be dressed a little more formally and not in a standardized uniform. There is a reason they are dressed that way, so it’s easier to identify them as ranking officers. If there is a problem with your table, the manager is your best advocate. If the staff is inattentive or your food is taking too long, the manger wants to know about it. They have more authority to address whatever issue expeditiously. Confrontation should always be a last resort. Asking the waiter to speak with a manager can be construed as an act of war. If you feel a problem germinating, try to summon the manager directly and have a friendly conversation about it. A good manager will remedy the situation and work in tandem with your waiter to get things back on track.

restaurant-complaintsWait until tomorrow – Do not—I repeat DO NOT—go straight to Yelp to write up a bad experience. Sometimes it’s healthy to let things ruminate for a day before you make a complaint. In the heat of the moment, your emotions can get the best of you and your message will be lost. Give the restaurant an opportunity to make amends before you broadcast your negative experience to the world. There are so many scenarios where things go wrong that restaurants can learn from and constructive feedback from dissatisfied guests is integral to the process. Waiting a day to have this conversation will ensure that cooler heads will prevail. If management is not responsive to your issues when you call the next day, you have our permission to Yelp away.

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.