When it comes to entertainment, we’ve become an on-demand society. But we remain much more structured when it comes to our dining habits: If a trendy restaurant has an open table, we can’t book our reservation fast enough.
Back away from OpenTable, step away from CityEats: Dining without a reservation doesn’t have to be daunting. If you approach these restaurants with a plan, the right attitude and a sense of adventure, you’ll be Instagramming your meal in no time.
Why not accept reservations?
Nowhere else in the city are the power and pitfalls of no-reservations dining more evident than at Rose’s Luxury, chef Aaron Silverman’s new smash-hit restaurant on Barracks Row. Rose’s regularly has a line of customers at 4:30 p.m., an hour before the restaurant opens. On weekends, wait times can exceed three hours.
“This is not normal,” Silverman said. “It’s kind of blowing our minds.”
Silverman decided very early on that his restaurant would not take reservations. “You can serve more guests by not taking reservations, and you don’t need to force guests out quicker. That was pretty much it,” he said. “We wanted people to have a good time, and we didn’t want any restrictions on a good time.”
Besides, Silverman added, it’s not as though places that take reservations don’t involve a wait, too.
“There’s more of a wait — it’s just from home,” he said. At many top restaurants, “You can never get a reservation, they’re always booked, and that’s bad. At least there’s a chance that we might not be booked.”
Restaurateur Jeff Black understands both sides of the no-reservations equation: His Black Salt, Black Market Bistro and Black’s Bar & Kitchen accept advance bookings, while newcomers Pearl Dive and Republic are walk-in only.
“A small restaurant [that] takes reservations — they’re very hard to get into.” But at eateries that don’t take reservations, “they’re going to do more covers, serve more guests,” Black said. “The fact that I’m serving more guests, that means more people are going to be able to get through the door and get what they want, versus calling a restaurant and getting irate because every time they call, there’s no reservation available.”
For small or low-margin restaurants in particular, eschewing reservations is safer for the bottom line, since every no-show or latecomer eats into the restaurant’s profits. When Black opened Addie’s (now closed) 18 years ago, he recalls two reserved parties of 12 not showing up on the same Saturday night, leaving half of the small Rockville Pike restaurant vacant on a prime evening. That was when Black decided to do away with reservations.
“The reality is, if I hold a table for you and you come an hour late, that waiter is making 25 percent less money than he would have made,” Black said. Having a walk-in-only policy means tables are filled as soon as they become available.
‘Being busy is good for everybody’
The surrounding neighborhood, Silverman said, is key to a no-reservation restaurant’s success. If it’s situated among homes and other bars, there are other places to endure the wait.
“People will be like, ‘Cool, I’m going back to my house, I’ll be back in two-and-a-half hours,” he said, recalling one neighborhood guest who used her three-hour wait to organize a game of Scrabble. Guests who don’t live nearby hang out at Rose’s upstairs bar or head to a nearby establishment.
“They get some business from our spillover,” Silverman said. “Being busy is good for everybody; more business for the street is a good thing for everyone.”
Such spillover business is a fairly recent phenomenon. Today, most restaurants with wait lists will call or text diners when their table is ready, doing away with limited-range vibrating pagers that force diners to wait on-site. Want to kill time at the half-empty place around the corner? Go right ahead.
Control the crowd
Restaurants have different systems for tracking crowds and estimating wait times. At Etto, a party’s size and contact information is scribbled down in a ledger near the door; at Republic, a system called No Wait establishes a digital queue and sends waiting diners a link to monitor their progress.
Pearl Dive and Daikaya both notify waiting guests of an opening as soon as a table asks its server for the bill. A five- to 10-minute grace period follows while the outgoing patron pays and the new guests make their way back to the restaurant.
The no-reservations ramen bar Daikaya uses a system called Aloha POS to calculate its wait time and keep track of guests. The software’s algorithm considers the average time it takes diners to finish their meals, as well as party size and the number of tables large enough to seat a group. But certain variables — late arrivals, lingering, kitchen catastrophes — can affect a restaurant’s quoted time.
“You never know. We have a little back room that seats up to 10 people, and they can linger for an hour and a half, and that really affects the quoted time,” co-owner Daisuke Utagawa said. His staff always overestimates wait times so guests are pleasantly surprised if a table opens earlier than expected.
But if tables aren’t ready when notified customers arrive, restaurants have to deal with cranky patrons, even when the circumstances are out of the restaurant’s control.
“You can linger — we’re not kicking anyone out — but [departing diners], when they see someone waiting, they’re conscientious,” Utagawa said. “They say, ‘Let’s go.’”
Pick your spots
Some nights are simply not conducive to no-reservations dining: Expect long waits on Valentine’s Day in particular, as everyone who forgot to book a reservation for that special someone will have the brilliant idea of trying to luck into a table at Little Serow.
You’re better off keeping your powder dry for a week night, preferably Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Limit your party to a twosome, and try to arrive before 6:30 or after 8:30 p.m.
Attitude might be the most important part of a successful no-reservations dining experience. Carry a snack so you’re not starving and plan your itinerary for the surrounding neighborhood in case you have time to kill.
Ultimately, nobody likes waiting for tables. Not even chefs.
“I absolutely hate going to a restaurant where I have to wait,” Black said. “But if I go to a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, I go early and I go late. I don’t go during prime time.”
Tips for dining without a reservation
· Go on a Monday or Tuesday.
Face it: If you're trying to score a walk-in table at a hot spot on a Friday or Saturday night, you're going to wait - probably for hours.
· Preferably as a twosome.
As soon as you add a third member to your party, the odds of being seated quickly diminish. Parties of two are the easiest for restaurants to seat.
· Dine early or late.
Before 6:30 or after 8:30 p.m. is ideal.
· Have a snack.
Nobody likes to wait, especially when he or she is already starving. Make sure you have something in your stomach to ward off the crankiness - but don't fill up on bread.
· Make sure you have a cell signal.
Many restaurants will text or call when your table is almost ready, giving you the freedom to wait anywhere. But if you miss the message because your phone doesn't have service in the basement bar down the block, you might be out of luck.
Remember: If you've done everything right, you're going to eat well tonight.
· Bask in your accomplishment.
Embellish your wait time when recalling your experience to make your friends even more jealous of your dining bona fides!