Today Mr. Bauer sounded off on one of his big pet peeves, which also happens to be a trend among our urban centers’ most buzz-happy restaurants: places that make him, and everyone else, wait for a table instead of allowing reservations. It’s something that New York Mag’s Adam Platt complained of when he reviewed the uber-popular, new-wave Asian spots Pok Pok Ny and Mission Chinese Food last year, both of which were imported from elsewhere to New York, and both catering to what he dubs the No-Reservations Generation.
Given that Millennials are a huge generation accustomed to having to compete with each other for resources, and college admission, perhaps it’s no surprise how tolerant they are of waiting an hour or more for the privilege of spending money on the latest and greatest food. And New Yorkers, especially, are accustomed to waiting for things, and finding a line or a wait list wherever they go, because it’s New York. San Franciscans like Mr. Bauer, however, especially those over the age of 28, don’t tend to put up with it so much. But we are starting to have to, and here’s why.
Bauer has tried to keep his review schedule pretty regimented over the years and has no problem dining at 5:30 p.m. if that’s when there are reservations. It’s a trick that he and many other active restaurant-goers are happy to employ when a place is great but gets too popular. They’re there for the food, not the scene, and there’s no shame in finishing dinner while it’s still light out. For Bauer, the fact that Outerlands, Ramen Shop, and Rickybobby now regularly have 60 to 90 minute waits, even at 6:30 p.m., is a deterrent from his being able to review them. “I’ve never been patient to wait in line or wait for a table,” he writes,”unless I’m working and have no other choice.” But, as he’s found, if he avoids places just because they make him wait, he may miss out on the more noteworthy eats in town, as he did for the first eight months of Mission Chinese Food’s existence.
Younger people, of course, and those with demanding jobs that keep them in the office, typically, well past 6:30 p.m., don’t always have this luxury, and they don’t tend to like empty dining rooms. And as Novella Carpenter observed, regarding the difference between her own Gen X experience versus the generation coming up in the food scene who clamor to get into every underground market and trendy Mission spot, “When I was their age I was doing drugs and going to rock shows. Their culture is food — incredible yummy-tasting food.” The No-Reservations Generation is obsessed with food culture, doesn’t mind fighting the crowd, and they are the ones Instagramming their every last bite and counting off restaurants visited and dishes tried like medals earned in battle.
From the perspective of small restaurants, whose reasonable prices (and therefore extra-slim margins) are one of the reasons they get popular in the first place, the choice to keep wait lists is partly economic, and partly structural. As Outerlands co-owner Lana Porcello tells us, “This has been a large topic, and we have been strategizing about how to deal with the long wait for some time. Our decision not to take reservations was based on more of a service infrastructure issue.” She informs us that the restaurant, which has gotten terrific press and frequently has multi-hour waits at dinner and brunch, signed up with OpenTable recently and is planning to institute a reservation system as soon as they expand into the next-door space — a project that’s been a bit delayed by construction issues, but is due to happen soon.
For restaurants like Mission Chinese Food, Rickybobby, and Ramen Shop, however, there’s little economic incentive to offer reservations when the public is already lined up to get in, and you can turn over tables much faster and more often when you don’t have to block out specific slots for reservations. Some tables might be done in 45 minutes, for instance, and if the next reservation doesn’t arrive for another 30 minutes, that’s a half hour of service time wasted if you don’t have a wait list. Not to mention the issue of no-shows, and the fact that systems like OpenTable charge a premium for all that easy, online access, eating into a small restaurant’s already slim profits.
We would think all of this would be elementary to Bauer, who’s been in this game over 25 years, but perhaps he was just opening up his curiosity about the no-reservations thing in the hopes of commenter bait. The fact is, if the customer base keeps coming, and wait lists are the simplest, cheapest, most profitable solution, why change? With the exception of restaurants like Outerlands reaching a maturation point where they can afford to switch things up and invite in a new, reservation-reliant clientele, we are going to have to choose between earning our medals at the latest and greatest venues, or waiting until they’re old news.
Waiting to Dine [Between Meals/Scoop]
Related: Secrets to Snagging a Seat at San Francisco’s Most Hard-to-Get-Into Spots
The No-Reservations Generation: Which [NY] Restaurants Have the Worst Waits?
Platt on Pok Pok Ny and Mission Chinese Food