Tired of no-shows? You’re not alone. In fact, many restaurants have opted out of accepting reservations completely. While some customers find no-reservation restaurants to be a buzzkill, others are enthusiastic about waiting in line for the newest restaurant.
Back in 2010, the New York Times reported on the sea of new walk-in only restaurants, which had grown so prevalent that Zagat created a specific category for them. Some of the diners interviewed for the article found the no-reservation policy infuriating, inconvenient, and not worth the trouble. As interior designer Mario Buatta told the Times, “To tell you the truth, I can’t think of a place I would go that doesn’t take reservations.”
According to NYC restaurateurs who had been following the trend, David Chang’s Momofuku, the famously authentic (and delicious) Japanese udon noodle shop, was the original trendsetter. His restaurant applied a “first-come, first-serve” policy, the first hot spot to do so. Until Momofuku, people had not been willing to wait so long in line to eat.
For Chang, taking no reservations is his way of paying homage to the food and the experience.
“There is a little bit of something going on—maybe ‘democratic’ is the wrong word, but it is the closest one,” Chang explained in the article. “By not taking reservations, there is a certain lack of pretension. It is saying that we want people to eat something delicious. And that people aren’t there for the scene—or anything else but the food.”
In 2014, the Washington Post focused on how Washington, DC, had also become filled with restaurants that didn’t accept reservations, much to the author’s annoyance. To eat some of the best food in the city, would-be diners had to wait in lines for up to three hours, depending on the night.
The Post author was also incredulous about how walk-in-only restaurants were changing the dining hierarchy. Rank-conscious diners, who formerly preferred starched white tablecloths over paper napkins, were starting to stand in line for the latest pad thai with octopus ink, or other equally trendy foods.
The change in dining style was credited to the celebrity-chef appeal. Ever since the Food Network turned respected chefs into national TV stars, dining out had become like a sporting event or rock concert. And with similar fervor to fans scoring concert tickets, self-described foodies were hunting for the next “it” restaurant. Walk-in-only establishments only built up anticipation and hype.
The Post author wrote, “The more adventuresome the meal, the more challenging it appears to be for a chowhound to reach it. But to the victor go the uni scrambled eggs with sea urchin hollandaise.” This bizarre combination was being served at the walk-in-only restaurant Rose’s Luxury, where wait times could be four hours.
The Benefits of Being a Walk-In-Only Restaurant
Not accepting reservations works best for places with mid- to low-priced menus. Patrons of more expensive restaurants and bars may not love being told to wait two hours for a table.
Yet for some establishment owners, that’s one of the draws. To those running walk-in-only establishments, the no-reservations system is more egalitarian. Gone is the elitism of knowing the right person. Anyone can eat at no-reservation restaurants.
Competitive reservation-making tends to be exclusive to higher-end restaurants. There can be a sense of unappealing snobbery when it comes to knowing the maître d in order to get that coveted Saturday night reservation. The system is sustained by people coveting seats in the center of the action, with the creations of the best chefs presented on the table in front of them.
But with customers becoming savvy about different chefs and food styles, people are no longer vying for such exclusive outings. The work of great chefs is no longer confined to those with connections.
For hot and trendy spots, rejecting reservations is an excellent marketing tool. Exclusivity based on the number of seats available instead of stature attracts big numbers and builds buzz. People don’t feel excluded from what’s cool, and they find it rewarding to get to the head of the line.
Not taking reservations works extremely well for places with radical menus, as mentioned by the Washington Post. Surprising recipes and thoughtful ingredient sourcing are the two most common menu draws for walk-in recipes. And of course, when a budding celebrity chef opens a kitchen, food lovers in town will wait patiently for the chance to taste his or her menu.
Interestingly, walk-in-only restaurants are making higher profits than if they were to accept reservations. Most restaurants subscribe to the 70/30 rule of reservation-making. But for some restaurants, no-shows pose too great a threat to their business.
The average rate of no-shows at restaurants is 15%, sapping revenue every time a reservation is missed. Some restaurateurs have opted to sell tickets for dinners to ensure that guests show up, but scrapping reservations altogether has become more common.
Instead of two or three table turns a night, walk-in-only restaurants discussed in a Globe and Mail article were changing tables four times throughout the evening. Without the lag time in between reservations, new guests could be seated immediately. For restaurants that have small margins, this change in revenue has a large effect.
Despite the popularity of walk-in-only bars and restaurants, they do run the risk of alienating a large number of customers, namely older generations, including senior citizens, and parents hiring babysitters. They’re not for everyone, but walk-in-only restaurants have found a way to attract crowds and make profits.