Why You Can’t Get a Restaurant Reservation

Alex Eisler, a sophomore at Brown University who studies applied math and computer science, regularly uses fake phone numbers and e-mail addresses to make reservations. When he calls Polo Bar, he told me, “Sometimes they recognize my voice, so I have to do different accents. I have to act like a girl sometimes.” He switched

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Alex Eisler, a sophomore at Brown University who studies applied math and computer science, regularly uses fake phone numbers and e-mail addresses to make reservations. When he calls Polo Bar, he told me, “Sometimes they recognize my voice, so I have to do different accents. I have to act like a girl sometimes.” He switched into a bad falsetto: “I’m, like, ‘Hiiii, is it possible to book a reservation?’ I have a few Resy accounts that have female names.” His recent sales on Appointment Trader, where his screen name is GloriousSeed75, include a lunch table at Maison Close, which he sold for eight hundred and fifty-five dollars, and a reservation at Carbone, the Village red-sauce place frequented by the Rolex-and-Hermès crowd, which fetched a thousand and fifty dollars. Last year, he made seventy thousand dollars reselling reservations.

Another reseller, PerceptiveWash44, told me that he makes reservations while watching TV. He was standing outside the break room at the West Coast hotel where he works as a concierge. “It’s, like, some people play Candy Crush on their phone. I play ‘Dinner Reservations,’ ” he said. “It’s just a way to pass the time.” Last year, he made eighty thousand dollars reselling reservations. He’s good at anticipating what spots will be most in demand, and his profile on the site ranks him as having a “99% Positive Sales History” over his last two hundred transactions. It also notes that he made almost two thousand reservations that never sold—a restaurateur’s nightmare.

Some resellers use bots—basically, computers that are faster at hitting the refresh button than you are. Several bots might be simultaneously checking the app, ten or even a hundred times per second, twenty-four hours a day, until one finds the eight-o’clock table at Bangkok Supper Club that it’s been programmed to grab. Instead of using a keyboard or mouse, the bot programmatically executes the reservation app’s underlying code. Some resellers subscribe to such sites as Resy Sniper (fifty bucks a month), which uses custom-built bots to snag tough reservations; some use open-source code posted on GitHub or write their own.

In addition to hotel concierges, restaurant employees (maître d’s, hosts, line cooks) also sell tables on Appointment Trader, risking their jobs for quick cash. Frey explained, “You’re essentially, virtually, greasing the palm—without ever meeting the guy.”

The origin of the restaurant reservation is murkier than the origin of the restaurant. As Rebecca L. Spang writes in “The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture,” in the eighteenth century, dining out in Paris or London meant going to a tavern where dinner was served at a common table, until the food ran out—first come, first served. In the U.S., reservations began to be more common sometime after the turn of the century, when it became popular to dine out for special occasions: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Election Night. More commonly, wealthy men “reserved” private rooms at restaurants to entertain guests. (In New York, people vied to host the most elaborate private dinners: at one, the center of a huge table at Delmonico’s was removed and replaced with a water tank, for a centerpiece of four swans on loan from Prospect Park.)

In the twentieth century, the growth of the middle class, suburbanization, and the advent of the newspaper restaurant review made telephone reservations the norm—until the Internet changed everything. In the late nineties, after movies, rental cars, hotels, and airlines had moved advance booking online, Web sites like Savvydiner.com started brokering restaurant reservations. Diners would click a button, prompting a Savvydiner employee to telephone a restaurant’s maître d’, who scrawled the name in his book, next to all the other people who weren’t yet precipitating the end of an era.

By 1999, a crop of new Web sites—RSVIP.com, Reservemytable.com, Foodline.com, OpenTable.com—were competing to automate the process. Tavern on the Green’s owner, Warner LeRoy, started taking reservations on the restaurant’s Web site. Other restaurateurs were skeptical. OpenTable charged restaurants a monthly fee, plus a dollar for every guest seated. Asked by a reporter what he thought about online reservations, the director of operations at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe scoffed, “There is no substitute for a kind, human voice on the phone.’’ But Meyer became an early investor in OpenTable, and, later, in Resy. Last year, he invested in an A.I.-powered reservation platform called SevenRooms, which most people haven’t heard about because it’s been designed for diners not to know it exists.

To be clear: every night in New York, there are hundreds of perfectly good seven-thirty tables available at perfectly good restaurants. For a lot of diners, though, the pleasure is in the scarcity; and the smaller, noisier, and more crowded a restaurant is, the better. Some restaurateurs claim to hate the buzz that comes with being popular. Ariel Arce, who operates Roscioli, told me, “If it’s a room full of people who just flock there for a reservation, the vibe ain’t gonna be very fun.” Roni Mazumdar, who owns the Unapologetic Foods group (Semma, Dhamaka, Adda Indian Canteen), told me, “We only value one thing: those who care about us. How do we know you care about us? When you show up and you are cordial to the staff.” He showed me an e-mail with the subject line “Urgent VVIP Request,” from a high-end concierge service that also brokers yacht sales (mission statement: “Dedicated to understanding everything you want and giving you more than you imagined”), demanding a five-top for an extremely powerful person, who “represents Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Rock, Katherine Heigl and Tony Hawk.” Mazumdar’s team sent a reply saying that the client could try to reserve through Resy.

In 2src22, Justin and Hailey Bieber were politely turned away by Carbone when they showed up without a reservation. In February, Hailey and her entourage had dinner at 4 Charles, after a private reservationist named Nicky DiMaggio secured them a table. DiMaggio, who charges between five hundred and a thousand dollars per reservation, owns a sanitation business with more than forty garbage trucks. He got into the reservation game when he was a teen-ager, after his cousin got him a reservation at Rao’s, the impregnable mob-flavored restaurant in East Harlem. He usually works with referrals. “My client list is, like, the N.B.A., Megan Fox,” he told me. (DiMaggio also claims that he has worked with reps for Serena Williams, a son of Italy’s Vice-President, a manager at a Rolex store, and a lot of Goldman Sachs guys.) DiMaggio, who is thirty-three, books the tables in his own name (to protect his clients’ privacy, he says). Last year, he made more than a thousand reservations at the city’s trendiest restaurants; he claims to have cozied up to the owners and managers, who set aside tables for him. In reality, he has used Appointment Trader, just like everyone else.

In Bret Easton Ellis’s novel “American Psycho,” the sociopathic Wall Street protagonist is obsessed with a fictional restaurant called Dorsia—a place so exclusive as to be almost mythical. A new, members-only app by the same name promises to deliver what the status-mad bros in the novel cannot secure for themselves: a tough table. Aspiring users download the app and allow it to scan their contacts (“The fastest way to get in is with your network,” the site declares), and then answer a few questions: employer, job title, Instagram handle, LinkedIn URL. Dorsia is trying to figure out if you are the kind of person who will shell out.

If you pass muster (I only did, I think, because I had saved the numbers of a lot of chefs in my contacts while reporting this piece), you can log on to Dorsia and search for the solidly booked restaurant of your choice. (You enter your credit-card information immediately, of course.) The first reservation I spotted was an eight-o’clock Saturday two-top at Carbone; there was also a slew of prime-time tables at Le Gratin, one of Daniel Boulud’s offshoots. Then I read the fine print: the table at Carbone would cost me a thousand dollars—not as a booking fee but as a prepayment for the meal. For two of us to get our money’s worth, we’d have to down three plates of Calamari Marco, three orders of lobster ravioli, two veal Marsalas, a funghi trifolati, and two bottles of Barolo Gramolere.

Restaurants that utilize Dorsia see it as a way to collect data about their customers, and also to increase revenue by guaranteeing that those customers are big spenders. Other minimum prepayments listed on the app: two hundred and eighty-five dollars per person at Le Pavillon, Boulud’s midtown seafood palace; two hundred and thirty-five at Marea, on Central Park South; and three hundred at Torrisi (on a Monday), a sister restaurant to Carbone. This summer, as Dorsia’s members go on vacation, the app promises to be ready with tables at the chicest restaurants in Ibiza, in Mykonos, and along the French Riviera and the Amalfi Coast.

In promotional materials for restaurateurs considering listing their tables on the app, Dorsia claims that it saves twenty minutes per party (no waiting for the check) and so helps turn tables faster—a key to restaurant solvency. (Gabriel Stulman, of Sailor, which is not on Dorsia, told me that he needs to turn his tables three times a night to make money.) Still, several restaurateurs who have opted out told me that they find the colossal-prepay concept unseemly, in part because it encourages binge eating. “It’s psychotic,” one owner said. “We don’t want to put people in that situation.”

Dorsia understands that, like the N.S.A. and TikTok, successful restaurants know more about us than we want to imagine. How many times have you eaten there? Are you a friendly regular, an asshole neighbor, an expense-account out-of-towner? Do you prefer a cocktail or the house white? Do you linger after coffee? In the old days, much of that information—and your wife’s birthday, your secretary’s name—lived inside a maître d’s head. Many restaurants have always kept handwritten notes on their guests, relying on abbreviations: “H.S.M.” (heavyset man), “eagle” (bald guest), “o-o” (wears glasses), “l.o.l.” (little old lady). These days, guest notes are “data,” which tech platforms help restaurants keep track of. Oenophiles might be labelled “W.W.” (wine whale), or, simply, “drops coin.” If you got a surprise appetizer on the house, you might have been marked down with “S.F.N.” (something for nothing), or “N.P.R.” (nice people get rewards). Did you sit for hours over a bowl of soup, tip poorly, get wasted, or shush the young family sitting at the next table? You might be demoted to “P.N.G.” (persona non grata) or “D.N.S.” (do not serve) status.

Resy has a data-driven feature called Notify, which puts diners on a waiting list for a restaurant. (OpenTable and SevenRooms added similar features to compete.) Using it is a little like buying a fistful of lottery tickets. Diners add themselves to lots of restaurants’ Notify lists for a certain night with the hope of scoring just one. The moment a host decides that a table is a no-show, or if there’s a cancellation, a push notification—“New Table Alert”—is sent to everyone on the Notify list for that night. The table goes to whoever claims it first on the app. Curious, I added my name to the Notify list at every fully booked restaurant in my neighborhood, over a six-week period. I didn’t get a single e-mail or notification.

I thought I just had bad luck, until a conversation with Resy’s C.E.O., Pablo Rivero, clarified things. Over dinner at Txikito, a buzzy Basque restaurant in Chelsea, he explained that I would likely always be near the bottom of the Notify queue. After American Express acquired Resy, in 2src19, anyone with a fancy Amex card—Centurion, Platinum, Reserve, or Aspire—has an advantage. If you have one of these cards (Centurion: ten-thousand-dollar initiation fee, five thousand dollars per year), Rivero said, “You will get a Resy notification before other people do.” (He also said, somewhat puzzlingly, “What we are trying to do is, honestly, democratize dining a bit more.”)

Some restaurants sort their virtual waiting lists themselves, without help from Amex. These managers cherry-pick V.I.P.s and regulars from their Notify queues. SevenRooms, Resy’s newest competitor, has a tool that has largely automated that process: an algorithm picks which diners get priority push notifications about late openings. The criteria include how often a diner visits, how big his or her tabs are, how much wine and dessert are ordered, and tip size.

Joel Montaniel, SevenRooms’ C.E.O., told me, “It’s the system that’s automatically tagging and segmenting people, because we know the human mind is generally limited, and not every customer is going to get caught and tagged appropriately.” (Restaurateurs can also input guest notes manually.) SevenRooms scans customers’ bills, tracks referrals, and monitors guests’ online reviews; people who frequently cancel or no-show can be required to provide a credit-card deposit. In January, the percentage of restaurants on Resy that charged cancellation fees had grown more than fourfold from pre-pandemic levels.

Restaurants also want to know about your guests. Debby Soo, the C.E.O. of OpenTable, told me, “It’s not just the person who booked. If there are four people, they want to know all four of those people.” Diner profiles and guest notes are useful for deciding who lands a table and also where to seat people—Siberia or a cozy booth? (A new startup, Tablz, offers diners the opportunity to pay between five and a hundred dollars to reserve their favorite tables at select New York restaurants.)

At Polo Bar, Leventhal had talked a lot about the challenge that restaurants face in deciding who to let in the door: “We need restaurants to be democratic,” he said (a sentiment I heard over and over). “But they can’t be—in order for them to be sustainable. The margins are so thin, and there’s not enough room for everyone.” That’s why restaurants like to identify and reward V.I.P. and regular customers. If a restaurant deems you important enough—and decides to label you as a “V.I.P.,” “P.P.X.,” (personne particulièrement extraordinaire), “reg,” “$$$$” or “soi” (short for soigné) on its in-house system—you might notice a little gold-and-black crown emoji and more available tables next time you sign in to Resy.

“Good operators know the best practice is saying yes, but how do you say yes while maximizing revenue?” Leventhal said. “It’s about saying yes to the person who’s going to spend the most money over the long haul.”

Moudime, the Polo Bar maître d’, agreed—to a point. “Check average is good. But it’s not everything,” she said. “You’ve got your big wine spenders, but do they come every night? No. Does a celebrity come every night? No! A restaurant works by an everyday person coming regularly.”

Your Resy, OpenTable, and SevenRooms profiles follow you around town, like Uber reviews, or chlamydia. If you ordered a bottle of 1968 Mastroberardino Taurasi at Carbone, the staff at Major Food Group’s dozens of affiliated restaurants—Dirty French, ZZ’s Club—can find out and fuss over you accordingly.

Guest data is not shared between restaurants with different owners, but platforms like SevenRooms and Blackbird want to change that. SevenRooms’ Montaniel envisions partnerships between restaurant groups to “make the world a private member club for everyone.” Leventhal’s solution, at Blackbird, is to reward diners with something like frequent-flier points, which can be redeemed for cocktails and appetizers at any participating restaurant. (Blackbird’s slogan: “Be a regular, everywhere.”) The company, which uses blockchain technology, charges a fee to participating restaurants and some member diners, and publishes an insiderish newsletter called “The Supersonic.”

The desire to amass data on diners is one reason that restaurateurs hate the resale sites. When you buy a reservation from Cita or Appointment Trader, you have to give the maître d’ a fake name to claim your table. How does Polo Bar know to give you a complimentary Martini, or what your water preference or food allergies might be, when they don’t even know your real name? (In January, 4 Charles e-mailed one diner whom it suspected of dealing in bot-acquired reservations, “We will require photo I.D.”)

This kind of protocol risks making diners feel like they’re in a T.S.A.-screening line. Restaurants don’t like it either. “It’s bad for business,” Eric Ripert, at Le Bernardin, told me. “Every day, we spend hours trying to track down the bots and the fake reservations. Last week, we caught eight fake reservations.” Unusual e-mail addresses and disconnected phone lines are a dead giveaway; reservationists always call or text to confirm. He went on, “If you have tables that are no-shows, the profit of the night is done. So, we cannot lose reservations!”

According to the market-research firm IBISWorld, over the last decade, profit margins at American restaurants have languished at around four per cent. Gitnux, another research firm, reported that high-end restaurants may only see margins of two per cent. Ripert laughed and said, “Clients shouldn’t know we have slim margins. They should come here, have an experience, and leave very happy.” Other restaurateurs told me they wished their diners understood that every minute a restaurant is open is money earned or money lost; four out of five restaurants close within five years. “We’re constantly bleeding money,” Jenn Saesue, of the perennially booked Bangkok Supper Club, told me. “I basically have a small army,” she said, of her hundred and twenty-eight employees. “These people are relying on us.”

When resellers offer reservations online, they’re gambling that people will buy them: three hundred and twenty dollars for a four-o’clock Monday table at Via Carota (risky); four hundred and eighty bucks for a table at Semma on a Friday night (an almost sure bet). When the reservations go unsold, it’s the restaurant that loses.

Appointment Trader’s Jonas Frey told me that he penalizes resellers when they have unsold listings by withholding access to the site. A nightmare reseller, he said, could be a “script kiddie,” who uses an army of bots to “book a thousand reservations with the hopes of selling fifty of them.”

A few hot New York restaurants have stuck with the old-school reservation protocol. At Eulalie, in Tribeca, a woman answers the phone and writes your name in a reservation book—no e-mail, no OpenTable. The best way into Frog Club is to write to a secret e-mail address. But it is rare these days to find a happening restaurant that does not take reservations at all. Lucali, the thin-crust-pizza place in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, might be the most famous: Jay-Z once called the pies the best in Brooklyn. Mark Iacono, who runs the place, told me, “It’s first come, first served. People start lining up at two o’clock.” By four o’clock, there’s a line around the block to book tables for that evening; the first seating is at five. I stopped by on a chilly afternoon in March, at 2 P.M., and found a half-dozen people waiting. At the head of the line, a cannabis-company executive named Ben Zachs said, “I’m first! I got here at 12:37 P.M. Today’s my wife’s birthday, and this is her favorite restaurant.”

Second in line was a woman named Alex, who had on pink sneakers and socks, and third was Tim Kimura, who wore an eye patch and a black shemagh. Gigi Principe, an aspiring actress who likes to bake, was fifth. She said that she hoped to be first in line at Lucali’s one day. “If it’s a Saturday, that’s baller’s gold,” she said. The line grew. A man named Baron Tremayne Caple, who had on a dirty pink hoodie, had rushed over to Lucali after cleaning someone’s office that morning.

At 4:src5 P.M., the restaurant’s host, Alex Perez-Cuomo, stepped outside and started writing names and numbers in a notebook. “Cash only! B.Y.O.B.!” she yelled. “You have the table for an hour. I need you all here to be seated.” Inside, Iacono sat by the window, in a white T-shirt, watching the line. “It’s just easier,” he said. “And the line’s become a thing—it’s become part of the experience.” By four-forty, a hundred and fifty covers had been accounted for, and only a few ten-o’clock tables were left.

By five o’clock, the restaurant was jammed with its first wave of customers, who were excitedly considering what toppings to order—mushrooms, sweet peppers, pepperoni. The man with the eye patch, Kimura, wasn’t among them. Neither was Alex or Gigi Principe. It turned out that they were all employees of the same line-sitting company, called Same Ole Line Dudes. “I’ve been called here to wait at least a hundred times,” Kimura had told me. The going rate for an afternoon in line at Lucali is fifty-five dollars, a percentage of which goes to the company. Baron Tremayne Caple wasn’t ordering pizza either. His table had gone, for a hundred and twenty dollars, to a person named Robin, who’d hired him on TaskRabbit. ♦

Read More