Among restaurant lovers, it’s one of the great debates, the kind of discussion that never really gets old: What establishment holds the distinction of being the Toughest Reservation in the Land? On a global scale, Spain’s El Bulli — regarded as the best restaurant in the world — generally takes the title, with a reservation system that’s essentially a lottery with slightly better odds than the Connecticut Powerball. But here, in our beloved 50 states, where is it most impossible to get a table?
Before we start naming names, some guidelines. First, seasonal restaurants don’t count, because they’re just that: seasonal. Even though their tables are extremely difficult to book (good luck getting into Aspen’s Cloud Nine, the slopeside chalet that serves fondue and raclette at 10,000 feet, during the week leading up to New Year’s), the window of opportunity is simply too small to even consider them for our purposes. We’re also going to take walk-ins off the toughie-table list, even though they, too, can be quite challenging. New York’s Spotted Pig, for example, is legendary in this respect: It’s not unheard of to be quoted a two-hour wait on a Tuesday. But ultimately, with unending patience, comes an eventual table (or at least a seat at the bar). So these places don’t count either.
That leaves us with all the other kinds of restaurants in the world, among which there are three general methods of entry.
1. The Rolling Resy.
Here, tables open up on a daily basis — but those tables are for a set number of days in the future. Most of the toughest reservations fall into this category, because most of all reservations fall into this category: It’s the easiest system to administer.
2. The Lottery.
Most of these systems require diners to start with either an e-mail or phone request, such as at the new Monkey Bar or Charles Restaurant, for which a prompt response is promised. But there may not be any response at all. While VIPs are often able to quickly access same-day reservations, the average customer scores these tables thanks to blind luck.
3. The Phantom System.
You think these reservation systems exist, but they don’t. These are dead-end inquiries: A number is listed, but it’s actually a fax machine. Or maybe it just rings forever, never to be answered. Or maybe there’s not even a number at all. These systems were more common in better economic times, of course, but now they’re scarce. The best example is Rao’s (see below).
So, with these three mission-impossible reservation methods in mind, let’s turn our attention to the toughest reservations in the country, from the unimaginable to the merely impossible.
1. Rao’s, New York
Frank Pelligrino, owner of Rao’s, has a nickname: “Frankie No.” You would have better luck getting invited to dinner at the White House than getting a proper reservation at this wiseguy Italian joint, and this is because tables at Rao’s are not so much reserved as controlled. They’re paid for an entire year in advance, so to speak, like season tickets, and just like you can’t sit in the owners’ box at Yankee Stadium via any sort of public market, you can’t really get into Rao’s either. A table for four at 8 p.m. every Tuesday, say, will cost you between $1,000 and $25,000 annually, depending on who you are — and that’s just for the table, not including food. Some season ticket holders have been Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Bill Clinton. And Frankie Fingers. Of course, there are loose tables around, but those, too, are doled out via unlisted phone numbers, or perhaps you can score one if you know someone. But maybe you’re better off not knowing those kinds of people, capisce?
2. Momofuku Ko, New York
David Chang’s twelve-seat restaurant in the East Village uses a rolling resy system, administered via the Momofuku website. Tables are released at exactly 10 a.m. every day for the eighth day ahead. There are, almost literally, no other ways of getting in (once in a blue moon, a walk-in gets lucky). Some claim to have gamed the system, and Chang has whispered that the most success can be had at around 11 a.m., when cancellations are turned in. This system is not a breeze at any time of the day, however: The average open reservation lasts three seconds, according to Momofuku. But the real evil of this system is Chang’s no-exceptions policy. As the rumor goes, even his parents had to use the website, and it took them more than a year to finally get a table.
3. Talula’s Table, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Something of a cult hero on the reservation-hunter circuit, Talula’s serves one single table of eight to twelve diners a night and releases said table 365 days out, every day at 7 a.m. They give the whole table to the first person to nab it, and that one individual is responsible for filling the rest of the table’s seats. Capitalistic instinct would suggest that some of these seats might pop up on eBay or elsewhere, but they don’t. One bit of encouragement: While the restaurant doesn’t maintain a public waiting list (there are rumors of such a list existing for VIPs), they do sometimes (and at random hours) post cancellations on their website.
4. French Laundry, Yountville, California
French Laundry has long been considered the toughest table in the country. While it is still very hard to get in, it’s not nearly as impossible as it was several years ago. First of all, anyone with a friend in the food business — a writer, cook, purveyor — has access to the restaurant’s VIP tables, of which there are many. If you’re planning a trip to Napa, call up your industry friend, give him or her a range of dates, and quite a bit more often than not, a table will pop up for you while you’re in town. If you’re going the pure civilian route, it’s a rolling system that opens up 60 days in advance. They’ve also occasionally released tables via OpenTable and are known to have relationships with local hotels and American Express, and these access points in aggregate knock it out of the top three.
5. Schwa, Chicago
Call Schwa and you’ll be greeted with a very generic message noting that they’re currently fielding requests for tables through July, but you’re asked to please leave a message with your request. Seems easy enough. But what they don’t tell you is that they get 60 requests a day for the restaurant’s 26 seats — and they’re only open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. The restaurant is also notorious for being slow to return calls and has at times opened and closed without notice. Locals have waited months and months to get in, and if you’re from out of town and you’re serious about going here, book your travel dates after you’ve booked your table.
Minibar, Washington, D.C.
José Andrés’s tiny restaurant-within-a-restaurant has just six seats and two seatings a night. Seats open up 30 days in advance, at 10 a.m. If it were located in a more food-focused city, it would easily be the hardest reservation in the country.
Waverly Inn, New York
The easiest (or hardest?) way to get a table at Waverly Inn is to call the office of Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, the Waverly’s owner. Otherwise, they use a lottery system here, via e-mail, and it favors people with names like Versace very heavily over all others (although locals are welcomed on a walk-in basis).
Grant Achatz’s temple of molecular gastronomy is a foodie must-stop in Chicago, with only 30-some seats, and they use a rolling system. Currently they’re accepting reservations through September 2009, but if you’re willing to eat at 5:30, you can get in much sooner.
Per Se, New York
When it opened, Per Se, Thomas Keller’s other restaurant, was probably in the top five toughest reservations, though the recession has quieted things down a bit. Hint: Hotels and AmEx have broad access to tables here.