“I have credit cards, but that does not mean I must use them to secure a dinner reservation, putting my personal information in a system that can be hacked at any time,” the reader from Upper Marlboro wrote me. Martin thinks the policy is “indirect discrimination against a certain class of people” and adds, “Just because one has a credit card does not mean they have outstanding credit.” She would like to see Emilie’s reservation policy “based on good faith.”
I was sympathetic to Martin’s points, although Emilie’s general manager Elizabeth Schnettler explained why credit card numbers — and $10 per person cancellation fees — are collected in the first place: Some customers were making multiple reservations, “often upwards of five or six,” then forgetting to cancel the ones they weren’t using or doing so at the last minute. “This precluded many of our other guests from ever finding availability in our reservations, and also created a hardship for us as we were left with seats that would sit open if we did not have walk-in traffic.” The setup is in place to “create more access for our guests and protect us as a business.” She invites guests who have questions or concerns about the policy to contact her at email@example.com.
In her email, Martin said she was reluctant to share her credit card details online. Schnettler says Emilie’s works with a reservations company that uses a third party to encrypt credit card information. Restaurant staff don’t have access to it.
To the restaurant’s credit, Emilie’s isn’t keeping the cancellation fees. They’re being donated each month to charity, starting with D.C. Central Kitchen.
Reservations about reservations
Like a lot of people, John Nestler would like to sample Maydan, the live-fire draw whose new chef, Marcelle Afram, specializes in Middle Eastern soul food. Like a number of hopefuls I hear from, the Richmond reader isn’t having much luck. “Is there some secret for reserving at Maydan?” he writes.
Owner Rose Previte wants Nestler and other would-be diners to know that she’s now using Resy, which releases new reservations 28 days out at 10 a.m. and includes a “notify me” button that allows people to be added to a wait list if their first choice isn’t available. “Lots of people get tables that way,” she writes.
Otherwise, “if he or anyone else has a night where they may have some flexibility, you can always try to walk in,” with 5 p.m. being the most promising entry time. “We usually have a line around 4:30, and those folks in line without reservations usually get a table or a seat at the bar. Some go on the waitlist for later.” The best nights for walk-ins, says Previte, tend to be Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Rules of the road
“When you travel (for work or for fun), how do you look for restaurants to try?” asked a participant of a recent online dining chat. “I find myself in a job with lots of travel to the West Coast and find that if I don’t plan something interesting, I eat Sweetgreen every night.”
Nothing wrong with the D.C.-based Sweetgreen, but an opportunity to hit the road is a chance to learn more about another city through its homegrown restaurants. Food critics have it easier than civilians; we can reach out to our peers around the country, or even the world, for suggestions. Ahead of traveling, as part of my homework, I tend to pair a major critic’s list of top spots with those of his or her competitors and see where they overlap.
A strategy that has never let me down is to book a walking tour of a city I’ve never visited. One of the most edifying and delicious guides is Culinary Backstreets, which offers tours in more than a dozen markets. My first (belt-busting) foray, in Istanbul, was such a mind-opener, I later booked tours with the company in Tokyo and Lisbon.
On the ground, there are plenty of free ways to find treasures. Reach out to local cooking schools to see what they recommend. Stop by a farmers market or food shop and solicit the opinions of vendors you admire. Long lines in front of a restaurant can be a good sign, with some notable exceptions. (I’m thinking of you, Hard Rock Cafe.) And when you find yourself in a place you like, ask the server, sommelier or owner where they like to eat in their off hours.
More than a few times, I’ve used a trick Tim Zagat taught me when he oversaw the Zagat Survey empire: Walk into a place you’re curious about, look around and inhale. Does it smell like good cooking? Do staff look happy? More important, do diners look happy? If so, the odds of a good meal are in your favor.
The rub on subs
The scene: Buck’s Fishing & Camping on a busy Saturday night. The situation: Diner Leslie Pietrzky wants a hamburger, hold the fries, since she’s allergic to seafood and the kitchen uses the same fryers for its oysters and fish.
“I mentioned my allergy and asked for squash instead of the french fries that came with the burger I ordered,” the Alexandria reader wrote via email. After her server mentioned the substitution would be $2, and both Pietrzky and a companion questioned it, the patron was still charged for the swap. “It would seem to me a restaurant would be more accommodating of food allergies. Am I wrong? I’ve never been charged extra there in the past.” A friend with a different allergy who went to Buck’s a few days later reported paying $2 for a substitution, too, she says.
Owner James Alefantis explains that some substitutions are gratis (salad for fries, for instance), while pricier seasonal or specialty items, like the squash, come up with a charge — well, sometimes. Buck’s has a “loose” policy, he says: “Generally, we would mention” a charge for a substitution, which most people tend to waive off. “They want what they want.” But if someone were to complain, he adds, “we don’t charge.”
That wasn’t the case the night of Pietrzky’s visit. The customer figured her initial protest would have translated to gratis squash. No luck. So why didn’t she pipe up? Her waiter, she wrote, “was not very friendly or interested pretty much throughout the night (he rolled his eyes at me when I asked about something, which I thought was pretty rude), so we didn’t have it in us to complain at the end.”
“I regret that happened,” says Alefantis, who believes part of the problem might have been new servers. “We don’t want to anger people over $2.” He and I agree on one thing: Disappointed diners ought to bring issues to the attention of managers before giving up — when a problem can be solved, on the spot — rather than leaving and telling.
Next week: A review of the House Members’ Dining Room in the Capitol.
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