Why do some local restaurants refuse to take reservations?

Why do some local restaurants refuse to take reservations?
Jennifer Silverberg
Restaurateur Zoë Robinson Pidgeon in her Clayton eatery, Bar Les Frères.

Zoë Robinson Pidgeon never wanted to take reservations. But her restaurant Bar Les Frères is wildly popular and seats only 24, much to the consternation of fans trying to get a table. It was almost as if Pidgeon's rustic French eatery was too popular.

"My original thought was that Bar Les Frères really is a bar, and it's kind of inconvenient to have to make a reservation if you just want to go for cocktails and maybe a little snack," Pidgeon says. "I didn't want people to feel like they have to have dinner there. I still want that."

But the complaints have worn Pidgeon down. She originally planned to begin taking reservations after Bar Les Frères' extensive expansion this winter, but she ultimately decided she can't wait. On October 28, guests were able to book a table at Bar Les Frères in advance for the first time.

"I understand if you're going out on a date, it's difficult to take someone there and think, 'We may or may not get a table.' You have to have a plan B," says Pidgeon. "We've been trying to accommodate people by putting them on a wait list, but I think we just might as well open it up now."

Bar Les Frères is just one of many high-end restaurants in St. Louis that don't take reservations. In the past, a place was hot when diners couldn't get a reservation for weeks, even months. Now, interminable wait times are the new mark of exclusivity. No reservations makes the race for a table somewhat democratic, but it can also be frustrating when customers can't lock down their dinner plans. Of course, it's not just about being popular — restaurateurs refuse reservations for a host of reasons. Sometimes it's philosophical; other time it's about the bottom line.

Ben Poremba's year-old restaurant Olio does not accept reservations. Its sister eatery next door, Elaia, does. Poremba says there's a very logical reason he made that decision for Olio, a casual spot squeezed into a former 1920s filling station.

"It's such a rustic and communal-style dining, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to take reservations in a place like that — someone waiting two weeks to get hummus?" he says. "It's a hanging place. You're supposed to be able to get in your car, in jeans, and show up."

Poremba says Elaia, on the other hand, is the kind of place diners can look forward to for weeks. It's also helpful for the kitchen staff to know how many people to expect — in fact, Elaia is reservations-only on the weekends. Poremba maintains that the decision really just depends on the place, the food and the owner, not following a so-called no-reservations trend.

"I don't think there is a straightforward answer to it. There are a few variables," he says. "Like, Gerard [Craft] at Pastaria should never take reservations. That doesn't make sense even though it's a huge space — ten times bigger than Bar Les Frères — no one wants to make a reservation for two weeks and eat a bowl of pasta. At Niche, it makes perfect sense."

At Edwardsville, Illinois' Cleveland-Heath, another relatively recent addition to the local restaurant scene, owner Eric Heath says he actually did take reservations for the first six months of business and then abandoned the practice. He says it was a disaster.

"We'd get reservations for 20 to 30 people — that's over half our dining room. And either they'd show up 45 minutes late or half the group wouldn't show up or they wouldn't show up at all," says Heath. "The guests that were here were able to see there's an open table, and they'd ask, 'Why can't we sit there?' We'd give it away after 30 minutes, and then the person would show up."

Heath says it not only hurt Cleveland-Heath's customers, but also the restaurant's bottom line. He and partner Jenny Cleveland try to keep the restaurant affordable, but they also need to pay their employees.

"In order for us to be affordable, we need volume to support that. When we take reservations, we tend to lower our level of volume, which hurts us in the long run," says Heath. "It just seems really hard for me to justify taking reservations at this point."

Though Pidgeon says she's changing to be able to better serve her customers, she still likes Bar Les Frères' casual concept and is setting aside some tables for walk-ins.

"My original thought still makes sense, but you know, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work," she says. "I think as businesspeople, we have to be flexible."

 
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3 comments
ebw6674
ebw6674

I wish you would have asked, "why do some restaurants refuse to sit 2 of a party of 4  before the whole party has arrived". There are several places in the area that follow this practice and I just don't get it. If we arrive early we always order a drink and possibly an appetizer and I don't think we are alone in this. I can understand not sitting one person to hold a table for 8 but when half the group is there, it only makes sense to accommodate those that have already arrived. From a business perspective, its going to increase that tables sales by a minimum of a round of drinks. Perhaps some of your interviewees could comment.

BillyGoatMusic
BillyGoatMusic

@ebw6674 You'd be surprised. There are tables where you seat half of them and the other half takes another hour or more to show up, thus reducing that server's income substantially on that table (that could have been 2 tables in the mean-time it's only half of one table).  My recommendation would be to plan a time with your friends/the rest of your party and when you arrive, give them ten minutes, if they don't show up, ask for a table of 2, then when they get there, they can either pull up another 2-top, sit in a different section, or be on time next time you go out to eat.  As a society we need to stand up to the "casually late" trend that has crept up on us.  Being late is not on time, it is late.

ebw6674
ebw6674

@BillyGoatMusic @ebw6674 BillyGoat, I appreciate your point, but you assumed that people are late, when in fact I'm speaking of being early. As an example, my wife and I recently arrived at a Mexican place in Chesterfield Valley and asked for a table for 3. It was 5pm and the place was empty. They refused to seat us because the third was not present. Little did they know she was in the parking lot on the phone. I explained this to the hostess who reiterated their asinine policy, to which we turned heals and left. That was a table of three that would have been a ticket of no less than $65.00 with drinks at 5pm before the rush came in. Not good business.


 
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