If you bought tickets for the Drake and Lil Wayne concert this past September at the Hollywood Bowl, what are the chances you would have passed on the show for a meal about town? Probably pretty low—unless, of course, you accidentally double-booked and forgot about your pre-paid meal ticket at Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec the very same night, which could very well have exceeded the cost of your upper promenade seat. The choice is yours: Do you stick with “Trophies” and “D’usse” live, or do you opt for potato pulp with Salers cheese?
That’s the reality diners face today: the restaurant as a performance you pay for. Not that the concept is foreign to any of us—it’s how it’s always been, from traditional tableside service at old-school establishments, to flaming whiskey shots at Coyote Ugly. Now restaurants across the country are codifying the rituals of restaurant performance even further with actual tickets you pay for (in full) in advance of your meal—or, in some cases, merely a deposit that is later applied to your final bill.
At the forefront of this movement is Tock, a ticketing platform slated for commercial launch in early 2015, created by Chicago-based restaurateur Nick Kokonas. An experimental version of Tock was introduced in 2011 when Grant Achatz first opened Next. As Kokonas—who has ties to the tech industry—writes on the Alinea blog: “It seemed, at the time, risky and speculative to open a restaurant and at the same time pioneer a new way of booking customers. But after watching the absurdity that was the Alinea reservation telephone lines day after day for years it seemed worth the risk.”
Restaurants across the country are codifying the idea of dinner as theater with actual tickets you pay for in advance of your meal.
For $695 a month, restaurants can purchase what Kokonas calls a toolbox of digital assets—customer service management systems, an open API, and even zero-deposit tickets—which are customizable for each establishment. Unlike Resy, OpenTable, and other online reservation systems, Tock is eliminating the need for a middleman by providing these tools to restaurants directly. “OpenTable’s like a travel agency,” says Kokonas. “I don’t need a third-party agent to do that transaction for me anymore.”
In an in-depth profile published on Eater, Kokonas talks about the advantages of bypassing traditional reservation systems: reduction of no-shows and last-second cancellations, predictable data, and therefore better prepared kitchen staffs. Early adopters have had mixed results. Wylie Dufresne sold $41,000 worth of tickets for a series of farewell meals at wd~50. Thomas Keller became an investor and is adopting the system for Per Se. But other beta testers like Philly’s Volvér and Chicago’s Elizabeth have already dropped out of the ticket race. Next door to Trois Mec, Lefebvre opened the French bistro Petit Trois, which has a walk-in only policy. The subtext is clear: less fuss.
In an age when dinner is performance art, should tickets replace traditional reservations? (Photo: Facebook/Alinea)
What does this trend ultimately mean for diners? You could make the case that it’s psychologically more rewarding to pay in advance (once, of course, you commit to the idea of dropping hundreds of dollars on dinner in the first place). Something as simple as a ticket validates the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. And at the end of the night, you exit through a restaurant’s doors relieved of the anxieties that typically plague us: how to split the bill and what to tip. In that very strange way, it gives the illusion that the meal was somehow free. It’s a clever little mind game.
Kokonas also speaks of something called “dynamic deposit tickets,” where prices for tickets fluctuate depending on the time of the reservation. In other words, you might pay extra for that Friday night, primetime reservation at 8pm, or less for a Wednesday dinner at the same place at 6pm. Every restaurant groupie knows the difference between those two experiences—all nights are not created equal. But for the first time, dining economics are acknowledging a difference that has never been formally articulated. Dining out isn’t just about the price of the food and the service delivered. As we’re beginning to see, the restaurant, like many other forms of entertainment, can be commodified in endless ways.
Shouldn’t the table near the front door or bathroom have a discount? What if you’re underneath the AC vent?
In a blog post, Kokonas says this acknowledges “the obvious.” Yet it seems like the burden is placed on the younger demographic, having the potential to alienate the very people who devoutly follow the food scene. Do I, as a young professional, have the means to drop another $75 bucks merely to reserve a table for my two-year anniversary? Money might be the safest way to quantify a Friday night dinner, but do we lose something when people can no longer book reservations based on tenacity and eagerness? It seems we’ve gone full American Psycho in our approach to belt-notching dining, turning restaurant-going into a game that can only be enjoyed by moneyed mooks. (To be fair, Dorsia would never sign up for Tock.)
Kokonas puts value on something we normally take for granted. It’s a savvy business move by all means, but where do we draw the line? What were to happen should we extend Kokonas’ idea to other aspects of a restaurant experience? Shouldn’t the table near the front door or bathroom have a discount? What if you’re underneath the AC vent? Or how about a corner spot in a heavily trafficked area? If you’re going to play by market rules, you have to acknowledge its volatile nature.