If you think the great equalizer in rank-conscious Washington is the Department of Motor Vehicles or a summons to appear for jury duty, you haven’t been out to eat lately. Thanks to a ravenous appetite for fashionable food served in appetizer-size restaurants — and an abundance of millennial patience — the leveling agent for secretaries and Secretary of State alike boils down to this: More of us are waiting in line for dinner because restaurants aren’t taking reservations.
The more adventuresome the meal, the more challenging it appears to be for a chowhound to reach it. But to the victor go the uni scrambled eggs with sea urchin hollandaise. The offbeat combination is found at Rose’s Luxury on Capitol Hill, where, on a recent spring night, would-be patrons of the modern American venue were told the next available table could be theirs — four hours hence.
Eager to explore the Thai fireworks at Little Serow in Dupont Circle at prime time? Prepare to wait up to three hours on weekends for one of fewer than 30 seats. Meanwhile, ramen slurpers know it’s easier to access Toki Underground on H Street NE on weekdays, when the wait might be a mere hour, versus the weekend, when the drill can take three times as long.
The latest game-changer, Compass Rose off booming 14th Street NW, is a cozy source for international street food that offers snacks from Brazil, India and Spain — a little bit of everything, it seems, except for confirmed bookings.
Restaurateurs say they don’t take reservations because they want to avoid no-shows and latecomers, which eat into their bottom line, but also because they know they can pack in more diners. Indeed, the policy, which clearly favors host over guest, is creating tension and buzz; as different as the aforementioned eateries are, they all play to full houses. It also illustrates an economy that has rebounded. In lean times, a business wouldn’t dare make it difficult for you to use them.
The reality that so many worthy young restaurants are forgoing reservations (see also: Etto in Logan Circle and the ramen shop Daikaya near Verizon Center) is testament to a culture that gets as excited to see a star chef as the FLOTUS, and to a city that’s living to eat rather than eating to live. Food warriors now brag about scoring the tom kha pla chorn — snakehead with galangal and lime leaf — at Little Serow the way they used to crow about keeping a wine locker at Capital Grille.
The shift is surprising for a city where power brokers like to be recognized and, better yet, to show off their standing. Maybe that’s what sets Washington apart from other markets: a high degree of self-importance. No other major food city makes some of its most coveted seats so hard to secure. Challenging as they are to access, even white-hot Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York and Flour + Water in San Francisco offer some reservations.
The allure of the near-unattainable has been good for other than the sexy restaurants in question; beneficiaries of the no-reservations policy include the hot spots’ neighbors, where aspiring diners go to drink or snack while they wait, fingers crossed, to get a text or call informing them their table is ready. Jamie Leeds, the owner of two Hank’s Oyster Bars near Little Serow and Rose’s Luxury, picks up an extra dozen or so customers a night at her seafood eateries. The daily average might be small, she says, but over the course of the year, the numbers add up and the exposure is impressive. “Customers come back on their own.”
On the surface, not saving tables sounds egalitarian. Whoever shows up first has a shot at getting in, regardless of clout or contacts. Anyone who has ever tried and failed to score seats at such extreme reservations as Minibar by José Andrés in Washington or the French Laundry from Thomas Keller in Napa Valley can appreciate the idea of more or less dining by lottery.
But hospitality takes a holiday at establishments that don’t book. In effect, these restaurants are saying, “It’s more important for us to fill every seat than to treat diners like guests.” Think about it. Who invites people to dinner and then makes them wait until the cook is good and ready to let you in, much less eat? By not guaranteeing tables, restaurants dismiss whole groups of would-be patrons. The masses include 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. (“Maybe that’s the point?” an acquaintance snarked.) I smell ageism. Sure enough, a scan of the dining rooms that don’t book tables could be a casting call for a J. Crew catalogue.
About that defense from restaurants, that the no-reservation policy helps them avoid no-shows? The hospitality industry would be wise to adopt the practice of doctors, dentists and fitness trainers, who charge customers who fail to show for an appointment. A fair penalty? The check average, per person, for every guest who fails to honor a commitment — Yelp blow-back be damned. (Some restaurants publicly shame no-shows: Red Medicine in Los Angeles and Noma in Copenhagen have both posted the names of AWOL customers online.)
Affluent and over-educated Washingtonians are not used to being told no. It’s one thing for Open Table to let you know, late at night in the comfort of your pajamas, you can’t eat someplace on the day and time selected, quite another to be told “no” in person at a host stand with dates, clients — anyone you want to impress — in tow. Such restaurant rejection is yet another reminder of disruption culture; the old rules and old access don’t apply in 2014.
Better to have time and comfortable shoes these days than a GS-15 schedule and Guccis.
Some argue that just because you like to eat doesn’t give you entree anywhere. As a fashionista with democratic impulses told me, “You can’t get XXL in Comme des Garcons.” Some experiences, in other words, will always be out of reach.
If it hasn’t happened yet, it will soon: Someone with more money than time is going to enlist the help of an assistant, concierge or Craigslist to stand in line as a human place-holder for the bragging rights of a seat in a restaurant the public is dying to try.
Fair or not — I vote not — that kind of behavior goes against the spirit of dining out, at least for me. A sense of camaraderie forms when you huddle with people on a joint mission, even one as ephemeral as dinner, and for some participants, the exhilaration of landing a hot table (“Yes! We made it!”) is right up there with successful deep-sea dives and climbs of Everest.
Again, the restaurant wins, too. Which diner, having endured the hoops of nabbing a reservation at Noma, perhaps the toughest ticket on the planet right now, is going to say the food was just okay?
What goes around comes around. When Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef of the no-reservations Toki Underground, visited a like-minded peer, his verbal review of the production began: “I waited two hours for Rose’s.”