Determined, Prichard logged on to OpenTable — Maydan’s only method to score a table — at 6:10 a.m. on a Saturday, hoping to find a slot 14 days out. Only 5 and 10:15 p.m. were available.
“I was like, ‘This is not worth it,’ ” she says.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In recent years, when Washington restaurant-goers have complained about reservations, it’s because many of the city’s top places didn’t take them. The only way to get a seat at the hottest young restaurants, such as Rose’s Luxury, Bad Saint, Little Serow and Himitsu, meant waiting in lines. When these places began racking up awards, queues grew even longer.
A new generation of buzzy spots, sometimes from the same owners as the ones with lines, are going the opposite direction. They offer online reservations, opening books 14 days, 28 days or more in advance. On the surface, it sounds like a way to allay stress from planning a night out. Instead, it’s added anxiety. The conversation among foodies has shifted from “How long did you have to wait to get in?” to “How long ago did you try to make a reservation?”
Consider the case of Elle, recently ranked by The Washington Post as the best new restaurant in the city. Getting a table there at prime time can be an impossible feat, even if you’re looking to dine on a Monday. Then there’s Fancy Radish, the new, raved-about vegetable-focused restaurant on H Street NE from the owners of Philadelphia’s Vedge and V Street. On April 23, the next available 7 p.m. reservation for two was two months and four days away. If you had your heart set on that time on a weekend, you’d have to wait 81 days — Friday, July 13. That’s a long time for the chance to dig into wood-roasted carrots or dan dan noodles.
Ben Leventhal, CEO of the bookings service Resy, which handles the Dabney, Elle and dozens of other D.C. restaurants, sees the increase of customers who make reservations as a growing trend. “In casual dining, probably five years ago or more, you might have seen a restaurant that was 90 percent walk-ins,” he says. “Now that restaurant is 50 percent walk-ins.”
Restaurateur Aaron Silverman has experimented with both concepts: walk-ins only and reservations only. He still considers his Rose’s Luxury, named the best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit in 2014, a casual neighborhood spot, so reservations are taken only for groups of six or more. Everyone else has to get in line and wait. “Any night, literally anyone, no matter who you are, can score a table at 7:30 p.m. at Rose’s Luxury,” as long as they’re willing to show up early, he explains.
Silverman’s second restaurant, Pineapple and Pearls, is a different animal: The four-star destination offers only a tasting menu, which costs $325 with alcohol pairings, and no walk-ins are accepted. That makes sense: At that price point, most diners aren’t dropping in on a whim. His newest arrival, Little Pearl on Capitol Hill, operates as a cafe by day and a wine bar by night. It’s a hybrid of casual and fine dining, Silverman says, and he commits about half of its seats to reservations, while leaving the rest for walk-ins.
Ultimately, he admits, “there really is no perfect system.”
Rose Previte — who owns Maydan and Compass Rose — agrees. She says some friends stopped going to Compass Rose, which doesn’t accept reservations, because they didn’t want to deal with potentially hours-long waits. (Parents paying for babysitters were a vocal lobby.) So at her newer restaurant, a few tables and the bar are available for walk-ins, but most of the restaurant’s 100-plus seats go to those who planned ahead.
(There’s some relief for diners on the horizon: By June 1, Maydan will start taking bookings a month out — hey, every day counts — as it switches from OpenTable to the site Reserve.)
Previte just wasn’t prepared for the extra effort that reservations have entailed. “I have to say,” Previte says, “it’s been very hard.”
She hired a staff member whose sole job is to deal with them and communicate with customers. Some of it is about dietary or physical restrictions, but also to handle people who made a reservation for three, then want to bring 10. Her staff tries to be responsive, she says, although they wind up fielding “a lot of email questions and answers.” There are also the guests who show up for dinner on the wrong day (some lying, most not, Previte says), or those who can’t take “no” for an answer when they try to negotiate a change the restaurant can’t satisfy.
For those who can’t plan ahead, Previte offers options: Show up really early, hang at the bar and be flexible. “If a group finishes early, and there’s a gap, we’ll tell people, ‘We can give you a table for an hour.’ With neighbors, an hour’s enough for their favorite dish and a glass of wine.”
Of course, that’s not doable for all diners. In 2014, when restaurants like Rose’s Luxury and Little Serow had begun to popularize the “no reservations” trend, Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote that not taking reservations excluded “senior citizens who might not be able to stand for long or don’t go out after dark, parents who may be reluctant to shell out $20 an hour for child care for a meal that may or may not happen, and suburbanites reluctant to drive in for the chance to be turned away.”
What does this sudden uptick in impossible-to-get reservations mean for restaurant fanatics? The majority are being squeezed from both ends. Imagine trying to find a cool place for dinner for two couples a few days from now. Tables at the most in-demand places were snatched up weeks ago. And if you’d rather catch up with friends over dinner instead of while standing in line, the most desirable restaurants are out of the question.
Maybe the true winners in this situation aren’t diners, but a third category of restaurants: Those that aren’t quite in-demand enough to wait in line for, and not quite busy enough to turn people away at the host stand. After all, not everyone is willing to plan meals months in advance, or, like Prichard, wake up early just for the chance to snag a 5 p.m. table.
Oh, and as for her: She still hasn’t made it to Maydan.