The Green Zone opened in Adams Morgan in 2018, designed to be a place where customers could drop in for a cocktail after work, or show up late for a DJ-fueled dance party on the weekends. The idea of making reservations was ludicrous. But now, planning ahead is the most common way to sip the Middle Eastern tiki drinks or share a plate of the house labneh. “Being on Resy is like a ‘Hell is frozen over’ moment for us,” founder Chris Hassaan Francke says. Still, he’s come around to the system: “For us, it’s been a way to know how many parties are coming, and to pace things out so we don’t get overloaded.”
While most tables are booked days in advance, Francke says he still sees groups walking up and down 18th Street on weekends, looking at bars asking if there’s space to drop in. The Green Zone saves a couple of tables for walk-ins, Francke says, but for the most part, they’re completely full, nonstop, between 8 p.m. and midnight.
If you’re navigating this new world of reservations, here’s some advice about how to make the most of it, including what bar owners really wish you wouldn’t do.
Do your research.
If you know where you want to drink, go to that bar’s website and look for a “reservations” link. Much like ordering delivery, there is no unified process for making reservations, and browsing available options means downloading and consulting multiple apps. Resy, Tock and Open Table are the most common platforms but not the only way to make reservations. Trusty’s Full-Serve takes reservations on its website by using the Gift Rocker platform. Some places are more old-school in their approach: The Red Derby asks customers to email for advance reservations; Lyman’s Tavern suggests that customers give them a call after 3 p.m. to ask about holding a table. Jackie Lee’s accepts day-of reservations by email but asks customers to call after 4:30 p.m.
Whatever you do, though, don’t try to make an end run around the system. “We still get DMs on Instagram asking, ‘Hi, can I book a table for tonight?’ says the Green Zone’s Francke. “And I’m like, ‘No, what makes you think this is an appropriate way to make a reservation?’”
Don’t wait until the last minute.
In the days before covid, I was not much of a planner. I’d make reservations for birthdays or anniversaries, or when I needed to get into in-demand restaurants, but I was willing to venture out on a weekend without definite plans, and if a bar was full, I’d stand with a drink or I’d find somewhere less crowded. Unfortunately, those days are gone.
“People are making reservations further in advance,” says Paul Taylor, a partner and general manager at the Columbia Room in Blagden Alley. “They’re thinking, ‘In two weeks, I’m going to have a Return of the Mack and cocktails.’ I don’t know what I’m going to have 15 minutes from now.” In early April, the Columbia Room unveiled the Spritz Garden, a streatery with sparkling and frozen Italian-inspired aperitifs. As of April 20, the first date with available tables was May 27, and even then, half the time slots were full.
You don’t have to be that much of a planner, but bar owners have seen shifts in behavior in recent weeks: Where guests used to make plans three or four days out, prime weekend slots now fill up on Monday or Tuesday. Paul Carlson, the owner of Lulu’s Winegarden and the Royal and a partner in Hi-Lawn above Union Market, says that while he’s noticed that prime reservations often disappear up to a week in advance, it can vary wildly. “Thursday night into Friday morning is when we see a big jump of reservations for the weekend,” he says, with customers waiting until they see a final weekend weather forecast before pulling the trigger.
Last week, I took a look at availability at some popular bars and restaurants on a Tuesday morning, and while they were missing some prime availability, there were still tables to be had. By the time Thursday rolled around, Primrose had nothing after 5 p.m.; Service Bar’s options were blank after 6 p.m.; Jack Rose’s rooftop was packed between 2 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; Estadio’s sole openings were 10:15 or 10:30 p.m.
Planning ahead is especially important if you’re not comfortable with eating indoors yet: There have been times when a reservation app brought up Jack Rose or Compass Rose for a prime Saturday slot — except the available spaces were in the dining room, not on the patio.
Make one reservation per group. Don’t stack them.
Talking to a mix of D.C. bar owners in recent weeks, no behavior has created more angst than stacking reservations. It’s a way to game the system that restaurants use to limit groups to 90 minutes or two hours. For example, at a restaurant that says a reservation is good for two hours, one member of the party will make a reservation at 1 p.m., and another member of the same party will make one for 3 p.m. When a server warns the group at 2:45 that their time is almost up, the person with the 3 p.m. reservation will show their reservation and demand to keep the table for another two hours. “This has been happening more and more with us,” St. Vincent co-founder Peyton Sherwood wrote on Twitter. He had to update the bar’s Resy page to say: “Please only make one reservation per day. We will not honor back to back reservations.”
There are multiple reasons that bar owners dislike stacking, explains Angela DelBrocco, one of the founders of Electric Cool-Aid, which opened over the summer in an empty lot in Shaw. “In these times where we are still operating at one-third capacity, turning tables is vital for business,” she says. “A new table will get food and more drinks than a table who has already been there for two hours. We simply aren’t yet back to a world where a bunch of people can come camp out in a corner of the bar for a few hours on the weekend and it be sustainable for us, but hopefully we will get there soon.”
That said, there are times when you don’t have to leave when your time is up — DelBrocco says that, on slower weeknights, when there’s no wait for tables, the staff doesn’t mind if people hang out and keep drinking. And if you look around and see empty tables, it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff whether they’re booked. (If they are, say thanks and pay your check.)
Think about going out as a series of two-hour increments.
If you're going to go out with friends, and you're sticking to the rules, the smartest thing to do is map out your day. No, it's not as much fun as throwing caution to the wind and spontaneously deciding to visit a favorite bar, but it's a way to optimize your time sitting, eating and drinking, rather than wandering around and seeing what's open.
When you’ve settled on the bar you most want to go to (see above) and made a reservation, start thinking about other places within walking distance, and see how long they’ll let you keep a table. Then make a series of consecutive reservations at nearby spots.
Let’s say you’re having brunch at St. Anselm at 1 p.m. They allow groups of four to occupy the table for two hours. So try to make a reservation for Hi-Lawn for 3 p.m. — it’s a three minute-walk away. Hi-Lawn lets you sit on its sunny rooftop for 90 minutes, so cap off your afternoon with a 4:30 p.m. reservation around the corner at Cotton and Reed, where a table is yours for 90 minutes.
You can do this in most neighborhoods — say, the Salt Line, Mission and Atlas Brew Works in Navy Yard; Jack Rose, Green Zone and Tiki on 18th in Adams Morgan; Archipelago, Service Bar and All Souls around U Street NW. Just remember to keep an eye on the clock and save enough time to make it to your next destination: Most bars will give you a 15-minute grace period after your reservation is supposed to begin, but after that, it might be given to someone waiting for a table.
If you want to leave it to chance, get used to waiting — and wait lists.
Many restaurants do leave at least a few tables for walk-ins, but it’s never as many as you’d want. At the Columbia Room, for instance, general manager Taylor estimates that the bar’s 11 tables can serve 80 people per night on Wednesday and Thursday, when it’s open until 10 p.m., and 110 on Friday and Saturday, when service ends at midnight. Each night, Taylor says, they seat between four and 10 walk-ins. That’s people, not parties.
When your plans change, cancel your reservations ASAP.
This is just general good manners, but it’s become a more serious matter during the pandemic, with financial repercussions for diners who wait until the last minute. “Prior to covid, people would cancel left and right, and at most restaurants they probably wouldn’t get charged,” says Lulu’s owner Carlson. “Now, it’s a little bit of a different story. If you commit to a reservation, there are cancellation policies, and I think restaurants are holding guests to them, and more firmly.”
At Lulu’s, for example, guests who cancel within 24 hours of the reservation face a $20 fee. It’s $25 at All Souls and Boundary Stone, $20 at Archipelago, and $5 at Ivy and Coney. St. Vincent has one of the more lenient policies, allowing guests to cancel up to two hours in advance or face a $10 charge. Because so many seats are outdoors, and there’s not much cover if it rains, guests can make a call based on the forecast.
The reason restaurants and bars are tightening up now? With fewer tables and more demand, letting seats sit empty is bad for business, so restaurants are making staffing and supply decisions based on how many customers they expected. “No shows are a dagger, causing an often irreplaceable income loss for the staff and the restaurant that day,” Founding Farmers co-owner Dan Simons told me on Twitter.