Add the buzz - cancel the bookings

By Amelia Wade

Waiting at table in a chic eatery takes a new meaning as city's hot restaurants drop reservation system

The first come, first served system at restaurants such as Depot in Auckland's Federal St makes for higher turnover of tables and better profitability. Picture / Natalie Slade
The first come, first served system at restaurants such as Depot in Auckland's Federal St makes for higher turnover of tables and better profitability. Picture / Natalie Slade

Securing a table at one of the city's hottest restaurant was once the way to impress friends.

Now, what's impressive for the cool set is getting a seat at the hippest eateries within an hour of arriving.

But the shift in restaurant reservation policy isn't to everyone's taste.

Auckland Food Blog author Jesse Mulligan said if he were on any sort of a schedule, he would be put off going to a restaurant that didn't take bookings.

"If I'm taking somebody out for dinner, one of the most important things for me is certainty - that I'll have a table waiting for me at 8pm and won't have to make an emergency plan B where we end up panicking, rushing from restaurant to restaurant until we find somewhere unpleasant enough that it has tables free at primetime on a Saturday night."

But when Mulligan does want to eat somewhere that doesn't take bookings - which some top-rated places are doing - he says there's a secret: the wait usually isn't as long as they say it's going to be.

"Often the quoted waiting time is used to scare people off. Both times I've been to Mexico (which doesn't take bookings) we've been seated in half the time promised."

The Restaurant Association's chief executive, Marisa Bidois, said not taking bookings was attractive to restaurants for myriad reasons, including adding to the establishment's atmosphere.

"It has a lot to do with the style and feel of a lot of new places opening up ... they're going for a different market - the younger, funkier kind of crowd that like to check out the new hot spots," she said.

"If you have good food people will wait for and they understand your systems, it can create more atmosphere in the place."

Restaurateurs also lose a lot of money on reservation no-shows as well as the time a table sits empty between bookings.

Ms Bidois said the no booking trend was in line with trends in New York, Sydney, Hong Kong and other large metropolitan cities where restaurants have had the policy for some time.

"It's probably too early to call it a grand paradigm shift in reservation policy, but we have definitely noticed an increase."

Food writer Simon Farrell-Green said while he wasn't 100 per cent in favour of the policy, he understood why restaurants chose not to accept reservations - it helped with a quick turnover.

He agreed with Ms Bidois that having people waiting in the bar made the restaurant "buzz".

"It makes you feel part of a thing."

Mr Farrell-Green said restaurants such as Depot and Coco's Cantina probably wouldn't be as successful as they were if they did take bookings.

Both served reasonably priced meals which were of high quality, and Mr Farrell-Green said they wouldn't be able to afford to keep their prices down if they had gaps between reservations, meaning they lost money.

"You can turn tables over really fast and maybe get a third booking in. And then there's the management of ringing a whole pile of people each night to confirm that they're coming. Renee from Coco's Cantina reckons their phone bill would be massive if they rang everyone on their cellphones to confirm their booking."

A spokeswoman for Depot, which doesn't take bookings, said the goal was to make the restaurant a casual, "high-octane" eatery.

"We wanted it to be a place for people to come in whenever they want and not be confronted by reserved signs on empty tables," said Rachel Cooper.

The hotspot establishment often manages wait lists of more than 100 people an evening and Ms Cooper said that if it took bookings, there would be no way it could accommodate that many people.

Diners knew that if they went to the restaurant, they would eventually get a seat.

"Most are pretty accustomed to it now - one in particular prefers to measure the wait by carafes of wine consumed, rather than the length of time waiting.

"We describe him as an A-class Depot customer."


Table manners

Tips for eating somewhere that doesn't take bookings:

• Call in advance - ask when the rush happens.

• Dump your friends - you're much more likely to be seated if there's fewer of you.

• Be prepared - don't arrive with a rumbling stomach.

• Have something else to do - leave your number with the maitre d' and go for a walk.

- Restaurant Association

- NZ Herald

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