If I read one more thing about the online reservation system at Momofuku Ko I think my eyes are going to bug out of my head. But despite the consternation surrounding the issue, it does give me the opportunity to discuss reservation systems in general, and how systems that impose some sort of limitation in terms of when you can reserve a table are inherently unfair to a customer. Yes I know, restaurateurs claim that systems that have an outside cutoff date are the fairest way to dole out reservations to those who want them. But as you will learn when we examine how these systems work and what they are really intended to accomplish, they have an intended purpose which has nothing to do with fairness.
There is a clear correlation between a restaurant taking reservations and the level of food that they serve. For example, people who go to Chinatown on a Saturday evening are perfectly willing to wait an hour and a half for a table because the delicious food comes at a delicious price (typically $30 a person or less.) But if the same people were going to spend $75 on dinner rather than $30, waiting in line for a table would be unheard of. That's because subsumed within the $75 price of a meal is the cost of a reservationist who answers the phone, and who inputs your reservation into the system. Like anything else in life, the more you pay, the more you usually get. If one were to amortize the cost of that reservationist and reservation system on a per meal basis, how much could it cost the restaurant? A few cents? Could it be $.50 or $1.00? I can't imagine that it would cost anywhere that much. So if the cost of offering your customers the ease that comes with a reservation system is so cheap, and the reality is, they end up paying for the cost because you pass it onto them anyway, why not make their lives easy and offer them the ability to make a reservation?
Historically, seafood houses were known for not offering their customers the ability to reserve a table. It's before my time but, the most notorious restaurant in New York in this category was the old Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay where not only didn't they take reservations, they didn't even take your name for a table. When a table finished eating their dinner and got up to leave, it was every man for himself and whomever was able to sit down first got the table. I will never forget hearing someone tell the story of going to Lundy's for Sunday dinner and how he, his brother and each of his parents staked out different tables and hovered nearby until one of the tables finally left.
My own first experience with what I considered a better restaurant not offering reservations was at the old Legal Seafood in Inman Square in Cambridge. But they threw an additional wrinkle into the mix in that you had to pay when you ordered, And of course the ultimate no reservations restaurant is Joe's Stone Crabs in Miami where the wait can be so long that one time when I put my name on the list for a table and asked the Maitre'd how long it would be, he told me to go see a movie and come back afterwards and my table would ready. When I first came across these odd customs, I thought that it was caused by Boston being a town that is overrun with college students who sometimes ran out without paying the check, and that Miami Beach was full of tourists who didn't show up for their reservations, But as I later learned from a number of famous chefs, that turned out to be wrong.
Many years later, Halcyon, which is where Gordon Ramsay is now located in New York City, had a series of dinners where well known chefs from around the U.S. would act as guest chefs. One of the chefs in the series was Rick Bayliss. After the meal, Bayliss visited each of the tables at the dinner, and when he came over to our table, I pounced on him about his no reservation policy at Frontera Grill. You could see the pained look on his face while I was tearing into him about the level of inconvenience that the policy caused. But what surprised me the most was the terseness of his response. I assumed he was going to offer some explaination about fairness etc. but, his entire response was to look at me and say, "it works" and to reach into the his wallet and hand me his business card, the implication being, the next time I want to go to the restaurant, call ahead and he will take care of it so I don't have to wait.
While I appreciated the gesture (it was actually one of the first times I realized that not all diners are treated the equally,) the next guest chef at Halcyon was Todd English. His restaurant, Olives, in Charlestown, Mass, had a no reservation policy as well. But English was a lot more forthcoming than Bayliss was, and he plain out admitted that the policy had nothing to do with fairness or with college students not showing up for their reservations. It was merely a matter of marketing. As he explained, the conversation that resulted in the dining community about the difficulty of getting a table was an extra layer, or three, of free advertising that he wouldn't get if he had a reservation system. He went on to say that a seond benefit was that since people had to basically show up to find out if they could get a table, the restaurant did a better job of filling tables at off hours. In fact this was true for my family when we visited Boston, we rushed to be there for the 5:30 opening so we didn't have to wait two hours for a table, a slot that restaurants have a difficult time filling. And I assume the same was true for people who showed up at 8:30, hoping to get lucky, but who hung around and filled a 10:00 slot. I doubt if they would have bothered going to the restaurant at all had they called earlier in the evening and heard that they wouldn't be able to eat dinner until 10:00 or 10:30.
In modern times, a few restaurants have come up with hybrid systems, the most famous being the French Laundry who takes reservations 60 days in advance. While this system does offer diners the convenience of being able to make plans in advance, the reality is, the existance of an outside date is inconvenient for diners because most people make travel plans well in advance of 60 days in order to take advantage of cheap air fares. Let's say that you live in Europe and you are coming to the U.S. for a vacation and you want to eat at the French Laundry and you book a ticket to San Francisco 6 months ahead of your trip and then you find out that you can't get a table at the restaurant. Does that seem fair? I mean why not allow that customer to book a table 6 months in advance? I once discussed the restaurant's policy with David Kinch, the chef at Manresa in Los Gatos and who knows a little bit about reservation books, and his opinion was that there was no need for the 60 day cutoff and the policy was purely a matter of marketing for the restaurant.
As much as I admire David Chang, both the man and his food, his new reservation policy -- Momofuku Ko takes reservations a week in advance -- is silly. And while I understand that he only has 24 seats and that he is running a business and he needs to hold back seats for all sort of reasons related to his business, there is no reason that he can't offer the seats he will have available on an advance basis that is more in keeping with the way his customers make plans to eat. I mean if someone is planning to come to NYC in September and they want to eat at Ko, what is the harm if they are allowed to book a table today? In fact, that's what Ferran Adria does at El Bulli when he doles out reservations for that season's tables nearly a year in advance, and which allows diners to plan things properly and efficiently. And you know how the saying goes; it's good enough for Adria, it should be good enough for Keller and Chang.