Hot Seats: online reservation systems were supposed to make scoring a table easier. So much for that

Hot Seats: online reservation systems were supposed to make scoring a table easier. So much for that

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For a guy who books a lot of restaurant reservations, I’ve had extra bad luck. I’ve been laughed at for asking for a table for two at eight at Patria. I’ve called restaurants at noon and been told to call back after 5 p.m., only to discover the hostess has left the phone off the hook. One time, at Susur, my reservation was scribbled in the wrong month. The hostess gestured at the full book and shrugged. When I didn’t budge, she rolled her eyes and led my companion and me to two seats at the bar. And not long ago I arrived at Blowfish with three out-of-towners on a Thursday, prime time at a clubby spot. The entire way there I’d hyped the sake cocktails as the closest thing to a miracle on King Street. Our reservation was nowhere in the book. The hostess said the best she could do was give us a table for two in two hours. Did we want it?

So I wasn’t devastated to see hostesses rendered nearly obsolete by online systems like OpenTable, the San Francisco–based service that’s become the industry standard, and Bookenda, a Quebec City company making inroads in Toronto. Now you select a time slot, click “confirm,” and you’re done. (A life-changing revolution if, like me, you happen to be reviewing restaurants anonymously. I’ve lost track of the aliases I’ve deployed on OpenTable.)

But the longer I’ve used these systems, the more I’ve come to miss the grumpy hostess. She’s been replaced by byzantine regulations and the clinical anonymity of smartphone apps. There’s no person to argue (or plead) with, and, despite the promise of egalitarianism, a prime seat is more elusive than ever.

I confess I’m guilty of spending too much time bitching about this stuff—to my workmates, my mom and random seatmates on streetcars. I know there are bigger problems to think about, like who’ll die next in Westeros. And maybe the battle to book is the price we all must pay for a booming restaurant scene. But a good whinge is cathartic, and I know I’m not alone in my frustrations. Consider this my purgative short list of all that’s wrong with the new automated restaurant-world reality.

The dreaded deposit

At a few places in the city, including Momofuku Shōtō, where there are only a couple of dozen seats available each night, you’re required to submit your credit card number to secure a reservation. If you cancel within 24 hours of your appointed time, you’re still charged for the dinner—at Shōtō, up to $150, a jaw-dropping sum for a benign transgression. They say it’s because of the labour and expense that goes into every night’s menu, but it makes you pine for those eye-rolling reservationists who know how to work a waiting list.

The reservation-release countdown

When Shōtō first opened, there was a race to get in, and I visited its website every morning at 10 for a week before I got a table. Shōtō only books as far as a month ahead, you see, and at 10 a.m. they release reservations for each newly added day. The system is so intimidating and intense, the restaurant hosts a dedicated web page just for crisis scenarios. For instance: “I am stuck somewhere with limited Internet access and anticipate not making my reservation; I want to cancel.” Which raises the question: how are you reading the FAQ page? The restaurant unhelpfully instructs, “Once you’re in front of a computer, simply follow the cancellation link in your confirmation email.”

The bum’s rush

It’s officially a thing: several Toronto restaurants have two-hour time limits on their tables. What used to be an unspoken rule is now announced by many restaurants as if it’s a point of pride: reservations are so precious, they’re rationed. This ordinarily wouldn’t bother me—two hours is usually enough, except when it isn’t. Once I was at Hopgood’s Foodliner with three of my closest friends, we hadn’t seen one another in ages, and we ordered some of the best bottles as well as most of the dinner menu. At a Maritime-themed restaurant, you expect the party to go all night. Instead, waiters lurked nearby and snatched our not-quite-finished plates the moment we set down our forks. To be fair, Hopgood’s warns you of the two-hour limit when you book, and it’s not the only restaurant in Toronto to fast-track diners: I’ve been hurried at The Chase, Weslodge, and Drake One Fifty. Recently, at the new steak house NAO, I was reminded of the time limit on arrival, even though it was a Tuesday and the place was only half full. There’s being rushed, and then there’s being shown the door.

The elite seats

The more I use online systems, the more suspicious they seem. I’ll request a table at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and there will only be options at 5 or 9:30. I’ll change my request to the following Thursday, same options. A month away, same thing. How could that be? Who is stealing all the prime tables?

The answer is no one. The system is rigged to withhold tables far beyond the common person’s reach. Many restaurants only place the least desirable time slots on OpenTable, because they know they’ll be able to fill the prime hours with phoned-in reservations from high-rolling regulars. OpenTable may be free for the public to use, but it charges restaurants a start-up fee, a monthly user fee and up to a dollar for every reservation booked. (Some restaurants pay tens of thousands a year for the service.) So why would restaurants cut into profits when they needn’t? Many places keep the prime tables—the circular booth in the corner with a view of the room, or the one overlooking the skyline—off OpenTable altogether, ready for when a celebrity or corporate VIP arrives. Boldface names don’t bother with OpenTable.

The anti-reservation alternative

I recognize the new elitism is only a rigorous version of the class system that’s always existed in restaurants. I’d still gladly take a rigged reservation over a place that expects customers to queue for hours like supplicants. I largely blame the restaurateur Jen Agg for making such lineups the measure of cool when she opened the Black Hoof, though I commend her merciless impartiality: she doesn’t bend the rules for anyone, even forcing Gordon Ramsay to wait on the street. The city’s most notoriously long lineups are at the tiny taquerias and izakayas that have popped up over the last half-decade. Surreally, the line at the achingly hip Queen West taqueria Grand Electric sometimes meets and merges with the one outside the St. Francis Table soup kitchen a few doors to the east.

The Pay-to-play surcharge

However much I wish I could get in at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, I’m not ready to pay for the privilege, like people in New York and San Francisco now do through a semi-black market of reservation reseller services that charge up to $50 for a table. It’s probably only a matter of months before Zurvu, Resy, Killer Rezzy (they’ve all got vaguely Klingon names), or some other mobile app arrives in Toronto and snaps up all the prime tables at prime hours.

The only defence of surcharges I can abide is that they’re a necessary evil, discouraging customers from making reservations at multiple restaurants on the same night and only showing up at the one that suits the mood. I know a number of people who do just that, or make reservations on OpenTable weeks ahead and simply forget about them. But that’s not to say I endorse the $150 Shōtō shakedown.

The nagging phone call

Many restaurants now employ some unlucky person to call everyone who made an online reservation, to confirm that they will be coming. Inevitably, as recently happened to me when I reserved a table at America, that person phones and leaves a message asking that you return the call to confirm your table. The implication: if you don’t call back, you lose the OpenTable reservation. So what’s the point of OpenTable?

The situation reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry arrives at a car rental agency to pick up a car, only to be told that they have his reservation on file but no car available. His response: “You know how to take the reservation; you just don’t know how to hold the reservation.” I’m too politely Torontonian to protest like that. Grudgingly, I call the restaurants back, reach someone who doesn’t sound excited to hear from me, and confirm my imminent arrival, because, like everyone else in Toronto, I want that less-than-prime table.