June 19, 2011

The challenge of making a restaurant booking.

It's hard work trying to reserve a table. But it's even worse when you're not allowed to make a booking at all.

When did booking a table become a part-time job? There's reserving online, then confirming online, then a dozen emails confirming your confirmation, then there's the phone call where the restaurant leaves a message insisting you call back - by the time I've secured the table I'm too exhausted to go to dinner. But then I'm too scared to cancel either for fear I'll end up on a blacklist for No Shows. No wonder so many people are buying sandwiches and eating on the street.

But despite the hassle of making a booking, I'd still choose that over a walk-in and taking the chance of waiting around. Lately it seems that the no-reservations policy has become alarmingly prevalent in spite of the fact that it's annoying and often a deterrent. Sometimes it's stated on the restaurant website. Or it's mentioned in a review. Often a friend will report back and give me a heads-up and then I'll have to rethink the plan. But the worst is when it's over the phone. It's such a letdown. I'll ring the restaurant up and the person at the other end will deliver the news in a smug, bored tone. "Walk-ins only. We don't take bookings."

"What? Why not? Not at all?" I'll ask, just in case there's a misunderstanding. There never is. Sometimes they'll respond that they take bookings, but only for parties of eight or more. That would be great - if I didn't want to have an enjoyable dinner.

I understand it at an inexpensive or an exceptionally small restaurant. But now if a place is popular, owners know they can make more money on first-come-first-served, and so no matter what the size, they refuse to hold tables. The no-booking policy makes sense for the owner. But guess who suffers? The customer. Why should I have to wait an hour and a half for a kale salad? It's not like there aren't 10,000 other places serving kale salad.

My friend Lisa has a policy of her own: to boycott restaurants with the no-booking policy. She also avoids places that are "cash only" which make her fear she will be plunged into the dreaded "who had the halibut" conversation when the bill arrives. Although, if the wait is long enough, one could decide on what to eat and divide the bill up before sitting down for the meal.

Another friend, Carrie, points out that people enjoy waiting for things that are not readily available to everyone. "I understand waiting for a sample sale to open or if you are 13 and waiting for tickets - but waiting for food? It's very Dickensian."

Not that she isn't willing to take a step back in time. She's been known to queue for hours to get in to a place on the Lower East Side that serves omelettes. People will wait for hours - outside - to sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers and you can't talk because it's too loud. All for what? An egg. How good can it be?

The no-reservations policy also brings out the worst in people. There are two types of diners. The considerate ones who are aware that there is a long line of hungry patrons waiting to get a table. They pay the bill swiftly when they are done eating and depart. Then there is the other type - the entitled ones who remain stubbornly chatting away, lingering at the table, refusing to be rushed or hassled. Only when the waiter or waitress asks them to leave do they reluctantly move for their wallet in slow motion. They are immune to dirty looks.

I don't mind waiting 10 or 15 minutes. Twenty if I have a book or I'm with someone I like talking to. Anything more than that and I start to wonder how much longer I'll give it before I leave. Then I consider how much I've already invested. I'll usually stick it out, but the whole time I'm anxious, and it takes all the pleasure out of going out for a meal. Although, some would argue, by the time you actually eat, you're so grateful and famished everything tastes good.