How to Snag a Seat at the Hottest Restaurant Opening

·Food Features Editor
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These guys probably knew how. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Flickr

Of all the things that have shifted in the dining world over the last few years—the emergence of “future foods,” the boom in farm-to-table cuisinenothing has changed quite like the formerly simple act of making a dinner reservation.

Once upon a time you would pick up the telephone, talk to a human, and save a two-top for a meal. Then there were websites that enabled you to do that. Then came apps. And then, at some fancy establishments, you had to buy tickets for several hundreds of dollars, paying before you ate. 

This year, a new breed of apps emerged that, as The New York Times reported, are vying “to become the favored portal for people willing to pay a premium to get into the best restaurants, at the last minute, via a few taps on their mobile devices.” What’s a hungry, trendy diner (unwilling to shell out extra dough for a resy) to do? We reached out to a few pros, getting their takes on the burning question: “How do I get in there?” Here’s their best advice.

Bribery. Hey, it’s a classic. As Sylvan Mishima Brackett, onetime assistant to Alice Waters and the chef-owner of forthcoming Bay Area Japanese restaurant Lil Rintaro, says: “Bring the chef/pastry chef some beautiful wild blackberries/wild porcini/abalone/rainbow trout that you picked or caught yourself—just because you thought they might appreciate them. Then tell the chef you were hoping to come to dinner sometime… hint, hint.” (Of course, most restaurants technically frown on bringing your own food, so it’s the rare bucolic spot where you, avid fisherwoman, can pull this off.)

Hit the social media. Jenn Louis, chef-owner of Portland, Oregon’s Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern, suggests you take to the internets. If you’re not feeling shy, you can “work on building a social media relationship,” says Louis. Read: If you’re tweeting about how great a meal is and using the restaurant’s handle, its social media person may notice and pass along the word to the front of the house.

Eat at the bar. As chef-owner of San Francisco, California’s Greek hotspot Souvla, Charles Bililies “always tries to dine at the bar; it’s the best way to get to know the staff and the other regulars.” And don’t be stingy while you’re there: “Good conversation and generous tipping as well as repeated visits help [get you in the door]. Over time, you establish yourself.” Management will notice your fine self parked at the bar: “As someone generally on the other side of the equation, it is far more rewarding to take care of someone who understands and respects what you’re trying to do, rather than a first-time or demanding guest.”

Frequent bar diner Brad Thomas Parsons, author of “Bitters” and a well-traveled gent whose photos of drinks and eats nationwide may make you envious, agrees: “Eat at the bar (or chef’s counter, oyster bar, etc). It’s the best way to hit up buzzy places.” Not only is it typically easier to snag a bar stool than it is a table, it tends to be faster: “It’s my preferred method to cover a lot of ground when I’m exploring a new city,” says Parsons. “You’ll get as just much (maybe even more) attention from the bartender/server/kitchen.”

Be an early bird. To those who frequently dine at 5:30 or 6 p.m., this might seem obvious, but as OpenTable’s Caroline Potter told us, “Early is the new late. If you really want to dine at a popular restaurant, consider dining midweek during off-peak hours.” On a Tuesday evening at twilight, the staff will be more attentive and less harried. Bonus: “You’ll feel less rushed, and many restaurants offer specials for early diners.”

Don’t forget lunch! Boss out of town on vacation? Great. “Many acclaimed restaurants also offer lunch, with the added bonuses of slightly lower prices and smaller portions.” It is, as Potter declares, “good for both the wallet and the waistline!” 

Don’t bring everyone you know. “Eating with four people or less makes it much easier,” says chef Ryan Prewitt of James Beard Award-winning restaurant Pêche in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Larger parties make things a little more difficult, since there are fewer large tables.”

Be flexible (and willing to dine in the wee hours). “If your desired time isn’t available, just show up with a friend and have a drink. Something usually opens up,” said Prewitt. This was reiterated by a manager at a popular New York City restaurant (who preferred to remain anonymous): “People might get lucky walking in around 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. because everyone that put their name down around 8 p.m. and was quoted an hour and a half wait time decided to go somewhere else.”

So there you go. It’s not that hard to treat yo’self at a foxy, buzzy new place. Be a bit creative, a bit flexible… and you’re in the door in no time.