Jordana Rothman is a Brooklyn-based writer who most recently served as Food & Drink editor at Time Out New York. Her new-school etetiquette column provides pro tips for navigating the restaurant and bar scene. Follow her on Twitter: @jordanarothman.
When the great food-world mystics of tomorrow look back on the spring of 2011, one milestone may stand out: The Chicago opening of Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant, and its visionary, but nigh impenetrable ticketing reservation system. The concert-like arrangement—select a specific date and time, and pay in advance for a prix-fixe menu—eliminated walk-ins, cancellations, and no-shows. It also ignited a bon vivant black market, with ticket resales soaring to $3K a head—a watershed moment in the long and labored annals of what it takes to score a table at a hot restaurant.
But Next isn’t alone at the top. In 2008, chef David Chang launched an online reservation system for his 12-seat Momofuku Ko in Manhattan’s East Village; spots for each evening were released one week prior at 10am and snapped up in seconds. Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, PA opened in 2007, offering only one nightly table of 12, to be booked at exactly 7am, a full year in advance. And that’s to say nothing of your garden-variety hot spot, too packed with friends of the house and restaurant big-game hunters to accommodate your humble request for a prime-time two-top.
Bleak, innit? Indeed, keeping up with sought-after restaurants can be an insidious, even humiliating, passion to maintain. You cold-call, you queue up, you squeeze cheek-by-jowl into itty-bitty vestibules with self-proclaimed foodies, celeb-chef stalkers, and other first adopters. It makes sense, then, that the question I’m most frequently asked as a food writer is how to navigate these reservation road blocks. The assumption I’m forever correcting is that it’s easier for me—that I call in favors, or simply drop my name and let nature take its course.
But the lady isn’t given to such ethical liberties—I’ve endured my share of those infuriating refrains (“We’re fully committed” or “We can accommodate you at 5:30 or 11”). Yet for the past eight years I’ve managed to plant my round ass at just about every New York restaurant you’d care to name-check. No favors; no name-dropping; no Benjamins slipped to the manager.
So how is it done? Patience helps a little. Forethought helps a lot. But mostly, it’s about McKayla Maroney-ian levels of flexibility. So limber up, ladies and gentlemen: Here are some tips to help you lock down that tough table with minimal mess.