We’re going to take a break from Monday’s usual Blog Reviews Roundup to discuss something a bit more… controversial. Today marks the Chicago launch of TableXChange, an online reservation “service” that is not, they insist, shady and evil. The premise is this: you have a reservation for, say, Alinea on Thursday at 8pm. But — oh no! — your grandma is suddenly in town, and she doesn’t like freeze-dried caramel and asparagus aspic, so you’re going to have to bail on your resy. But instead of calling the restaurant and cancelling with them, you go onto TableXChange and name your price. Everyone wins, right? Alinea keeps their tables full, some other TableXChange user gets to eat at The Best Restaurant In America, your grandma gets your glittering company, and you get a sweet $20 in your paypal account.
Erm. We’re finding ourselves finding this situation less than savory. But at the same time, we’re having a hard time pinpointing exactly why without resorting to vague notions of “integrity” and “the restaurant experience.” Really astonishingly long-winded examination of the situation, after the jump.
At its core, this service — which has been operating for almost a year now in New York, and for a little less than that in San Francisco, more or less without outcry — is a straightforward grey market: the creation of a secondary marketplace for a limited good (in this case, a table and time) that’s available through other means. Of course, since Alinea’s walls contain a finite space, there’s only so many tables that we can get for free simply by calling and requesting it. And so it seems natural (though not necessarily right) that, as with other short-supply/high-demand/fixed-price items (think the iPhone and Nintendo Wii), a cabal of enterprising folks can find a way to turn that demand into cash.
Now, confession: We have taken a reservation under a fake name before, and the circumstances were somewhat extraordinary. We found ourself in possession of a reservation at New York’s impossible-to-enter Momofuku Ko, back in the insane first few weeks of its opening. But we were a group of four, and our reservation was only for two. And then up came the opportunity to snag a four-top at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s east coast outpost. The catch? We had to use a fake name, since the reservation had already been made.
But two things differentiate our New York reservation whirlwind from the services offered by TableXChange. First, and critically, no money changed hands. We didn’t buy our reservation at either place: for Ko, we were lucky with a speedy internet connection; for Per Se, we had a friendly email exchange with the holder of the reservation. Secondly, and just as critically, we canceled our Ko reservation, thus returning a two-top to the open pool that is the restaurant reservation system.
Our theory here is that what makes it possible for restaurants with hard-to-get seats like Ko or Talulah’s Table or The French Laundry to continue operating without engendering massive amounts of ill will is that while getting a table is a giant pain in the ass, it is equally a giant pain in the ass to everyone. With a few exceptions for luminaries, notables, and friends of the owners, a prime seat at a prime restaurant at a prime hour is a simple matter of first-come, first-served. And should someone cancel their Saturday 8pm four-top at Spiaggia a day before, and someone else call in hoping against hope for a last-minute, day-of reservation — well, that’s all just part of the beauty of the situation.
A system like TableXChange turns all this on its head: Not only is table filling taken out of the restaurant’s hands, but being the person who gets that last-minute Spiaggia table becomes not a matter of luck and karma, but a matter of joining a for-profit website that asks you to shell out money (not a cent of which is seen by the restaurant) for a table that is, in the primary market, free to all comers.
Since this is Chicago, after all, and the free market rules, we will admit that here some of you (and, okay, a teensy portion of our brain) will be saying “But hello! This is pure capitalism at work! It’s a thing of beauty! People who are willing to pay in order to avoid the crapshoot of calling a resy line get to do it, and people who don’t want to pay aren’t being forced to. It’s actually going to increase the efficiency of the reservation system!”
But that’s where those notions of “integrity” and “the meaning of restaurant dining” come into play as rejoinders, and also the notion of, hey, supporting restaurateurs! And not turning off the restaurant-going public! And, you know, living one’s life in such a way that one is not a giant asshole for whom every transaction and every experience can be monetized. We think that if reservations at graham elliot or Topolobampo (both of which, as of this writing, are for sale on TableXChange) are in such demand that a motherfreaking secondary market can be built, it’s the restaurateurs, the chefs, the servers, and everyone else who’s contributing to the experience who should be rewarded for that. Not some dudes with basic MySQL skills and a snazzy URL who, eBay-style, will skim off a percentage of every transaction.
And it’s also worth pointing out that TableXChange assures everyone that they’ve got a failproof system in place to offset abuse — unsavory types who might make a reservation with the sole purpose of turning it around to make a quick buck. How exactly that service works is completely lost on us, though.
Our verdict: Don’t want it, don’t need it, the world would be better without it.
Agree? Disagree? We’re dying to know what you think. And if you’ve made it this far down the post, you deserve to vent your spleen in the comments.
[Photo: A dish at Alinea (resy yours for the low low price of … oh hey, it’s not up on TXC yet), via Amanda_Chou’s Flickr]