The first restaurant reservation may have been booked by chatting with a traiteur—a self-made restaurateur in 18th-century France—followed by the meal itself in the traiteur's home.
The last reservation I made for a certain hot, new ramen-ya here in the city was, well, less seamless: 21 anxious calls to the restaurant, 20 fury-inducing busy signals, one short final conversation with a sympathetic hostess, one new name added to the wait list and one alternate plan to work out instead. But later on, by the grace of the dining gods, I got one more call: "There's a table available an hour from now." Workout canceled.
Gone are the days of slipping a crisp Andrew Jackson into the maître d's hand. Now blogs update us on every development (ConEd's on, guys!), and everyone's vying for a table. It's turned dining out into a crowded mess, with long wait times at peak hours for restaurants that don't take reservations or crazy planning ahead for the ones that do. And with the avalanche of big openings just before the New Year (Ko! Mission Chinese!), everyone's wondering how to get in without all the fuss. We asked the industry pros behind your maddening two-hour wait time for best practices and insider tips.
Here's how to get into these restaurants, faster, more frequently and even at prime time:
① Count on cancellations.
"That's how I got into Per Se," Gonzalo Goût, the general manager at Cosme, says with a laugh. "I showed up one day and said, 'Hi, are there any cancelled reservations?'" Even if you're running the hottest restaurant opening to hit the city this fall, people are still fickle, forgetful and bound to cancel their reservation last-minute or not show up at all. This hurts the restaurant—deeply.
"If we have a lot of demand for our tables and then all of the sudden 10 or 12 of those end up not showing up, that decimates our night," Eamon Rockey, Betony's general manager, explains. "If we had a little more time we could have filled up the restaurant." Hey, that's your cue.
At Cosme, Goût gets about six to 10 cancellations a day—that's a little more than half a dozen with your name all over it—so he suggests calling the day of your desired meal to check in or follow his lead at Per Se.
The "Burrata in Weeds" at Cosme | Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
② Just chill.
It's 7:30 p.m., Saturday night, and everyone is elbowing their way to the get a table at this very buzzy new spot. The hostess tells you the wait is another two hours, but you see an open table right over there. Why won't they seat you?
Reason one: Someone already has it, and, no, it's not necessarily Rihanna (more on that below). "The empty table is probably for a reservation that hasn't arrived yet—say it's 7:45 p.m., we're probably holding it for an 8 p.m. or possibly an 8:15 p.m. reservation," Peter Juusola, Marta's general manager, explains. "It's blocked out based on the average time it takes a table to fully enjoy their meal."
Reason two: This table doesn't fit you and your friends. "I wish people were more sympathetic to that. If a party of four arrives at 7 p.m. and sees an open table of two at 7 p.m., it wouldn't have satisfied your request," Rockey says. "I've seen people get really upset when they see an open table."
So don't bring these grievances to the gatekeeper. "Be nice to the hostess, because she is ultimately the one who is in control of the dining room flow," Jeff McInnis, the chef at Root & Bone, adds. "It's not her fault if we are slammed with guests, and the nicer you are, the easier it is for her to do her job well." Hint, hint.
③ Get familiar.
January can be a tough month for restaurants—fresh off the frenzied, massive holiday dinners and right at the start of everyone sticking to their resolutions of cooking more and eating healthier. This is the perfect time to be a regular, and it all starts with a simple hello after the meal.
"People should pull the captain or maître d' aside and introduce themselves. Those relationships really matter," Rockey says. "If you're someone who has been here with us and we know you're going to be part of the family so to speak, then I want that. And we're going to do everything we can to accommodate a last-minute table."
④ Stick around.
Not every restaurant is setting aside a table for Rihanna. These guys are pulling for you, and you never know when your long wait might get cut in half. "I wish everyone knew that we didn't play favorites," Greg Goldman, Roberta's general manager, says. "We treat all of our guests the same and stay true to our wait list."
Still, they're not going to hold your hand, and you need to be smart. First, don't wander too far from the restaurant. "Unfortunately some guests put their names on our list and don't notify us they have left and gone somewhere else. We calculate this into our quotes, but this leaves tables empty while we are calling out their names or waiting for them to respond to our texts," Goldman says. "We understand though. We've all gone out to eat with seven people, and plans change."
Second, show up early, even if you have a super-late reservation. "I encourage you to come early and have a drink the bar," Goût says. "I'm basing your reservation off what I know, say that a table of four will take two to two and a half hours, but maybe there's a table done in an hour and a half. Then we're happy to seat you earlier."
Cherry tomato pie at Marta | Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
⑤ Honor thy rez.
Don't treat your online reservation like Facebook event invites. As in, don't just click "yes" and not show up. Restaurants can see your dining attendance, but, more importantly, the online apps they're using can, too. "There are a lot of systems that take into account no-shows, and guests are rated based on that," Goût says. "We've relied on apps like Resy, because their no-show rate is the lowest we know of."
Online reservation systems, like OpenTable and especially paid ones like Resy and SeatMe, the latter which Cosme relies on, provide this data and help identify types of diners they want to bring into their restaurant.
"The other day we identified a specific type of guest that we can keep an eye on," Rockey confides. "So we added a code that every time a guest from that specific subsection in our database comes in, we say, 'Hey, this is a person who should be noted, and their specific needs are going to be catered to.'"
Now that you've got all the industry intel, here are the restaurants where you should flex it:
Mission Chinese, Lower East Side: Prime rib with a king crab garnish and no more beer keg? This is a new Mission Chinese from Danny Bowien, brimming with new wood-fired dishes and roomy bar space, and we're dying to go just as much as you are.
Marta, Flatiron: Maialino's Nick Anderer is doing amazing things to the thin, crackly pizza of Rome, like topping it with eggy, delicious carbonara. In this weather, we actually prefer to eat at the bar, yes, right by the giant beehive pizza ovens.
Momofuku Ko, Lower East Side: Roomier digs makes it easier to get into David Chang's newly reinstated chef's table spot. You'll need to book online, but now you know the drill.
Cosme, Flatiron: You need that husk meringue, stat. Cosme has recently expanded its bar area to offer Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera's full menu, so get to it.
Dirty French, Lower East Side: It seems like everything the Torrisi team touches turns into gold, and this French-Moroccan hit is outlandish, fun and bold. We're fans of the chicken and crepes.
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