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December 5, 2013 at 11:42 PM

Your table is not waiting, but you are: the ‘no reservations’ game

A menu at Blind Pig Bistro Photo: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Menu at Blind Pig Bistro
Photo: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

With just 27 seats and a chalkboard menu listing fewer than a dozen items, Blind Pig Bistro appears to be the sort of neighborhood place that wouldn’t take reservations, much less offer a tasting menu.

But the two-year-old Eastlake eatery announced this week they now accept reservations, plus they’ve made their popular whole-menu tasting option more attractive: the 8 to10-plate shareable feast is priced at $35-$45 per person.

The news got me wondering anew why some restaurants take reservations, while others—to the annoyance of many diners, me included—don’t.

Blind Pig’s chef/owner Charles Walpole says he’s thinking of his customers. “The idea at this point is, how can we be better, how can we grow. Taking reservations is one way we can improve service. It’s asking a lot to ask people to come in and not have a table waiting.”

He’s also thinking long term. In 2014 he plans to transform the adjacent Eastlake Teryiyaki into a 35-seat bar and lounge. The two storefronts will be connected but have separate names and menus.

The reason many small restaurants don’t take reservations, says Walpole, is largely a staffing issue. “It requires managing the tables, calling and confirming the reservations. We have a bigger staff and a stronger team. We feel we can do it now and do it right.”

Trevor Greenwood says about two years after opening the first Cantinetta restaurant in Wallingford, he considered taking reservations in a limited way because of customer complaints. Instead, he has held to a no-reservation policy for parties fewer than six at the Wallingford Cantinetta and in Bellevue, as well as at the much smaller Bar Cantinetta in Madison Valley.

Cantinetta in Bellevue/Photo: Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Cantinetta in Bellevue Photo: Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Not having to hold tables for reservations brings a certain energy to a restaurant, Greenwood believes. “As a neighborhood restaurant, I like the idea of ‘come as you are and we’ll take care of you.’ Often it’s only a 15-minute wait and I hope our hosts make people comfortable. We try to be accommodating. We encourage people to call when they are coming in. We try to guide them if they are looking for a specific time. We’ll put them on a waitlist if we have one.”

The restaurateurs I talked to agree that not taking reservations is more profitable.You don’t run the risk of empty seats because of no-shows, or last minute cancellations, or having customers occupy tables far longer than calculated. But that works best when you have a steady stream of customers willing to wait, or to dine very early, or very late—a scenario that a hot, new place might enjoy every night but more mature establishments may only experience on weekends.

“We were one of the first to make people wait,” says Ethan Stowell of two restaurants he opened in 2008–Tavolata and How to Cook a Wolf. Neither took reservations at first, but the policy changed after about a year. Demand was still high but one day Stowell ran into a former steady customer who lived two blocks away from How to Cook a Wolf. He said he had stopped coming in because he couldn’t make a reservation and didn’t want to eat at five o’clock.

How To Cook a Wolf Photo: Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times

How To Cook a Wolf
Photo: Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times

Taking reservations became a core value rather than a dollar thing for Stowell. “It’s not very hospitable not to take them. If we’re a neighborhood restaurant we want the neighbors to come. We want to still be here in ten years with a solid profitable business.”

All of Stowell’s restaurants (except Ballard Pizza Co.) take reservations. “If you’re a dinner time house, and people order drinks or a bottle of wine, it’s a dining experience. People are spending big money. It warrants being able to make a reservation,” he says.

Still he wishes more customers would recognize the complexities involved for the restaurant. “We don’t want people to wait but they should cut us some slack.” (The trio who sat for more than four hours at Rione XIII—he’s thinking of you.)

Renee Erickson, proprietor of two restaurants notorious for long wait times, believes more people get to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, like her Ballard oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter. Her newest restaurant, The Whale Wins, accepts a very limited number each night, but getting one is tough because they keep two-thirds of the restaurant available for walk-ins.

If you manage to snag one of four nightly slots via The Whale Wins’ website, you’ll see this reservation policy: “Unless otherwise agreed, we allow the following times for all parties: parties of two to four – 2 hours; parties of five to six – 2 ½ hours; parties of 6 or more – 3 hours.

The Whale Wins Photo: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

The Whale Wins
Photo: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

This doesn’t mean they ask people to leave when their time is up, Erickson says. “We hope people will honor the time limit and realize that if we are offering reservations, there will be people coming in behind them. The policy acknowledges that.”

Taking reservations is an art, she admits, and something they are still experimenting with.  “We are sort of learning people have different expectations and time frames. We learned a lot from Walrus to [The Whale Wins]. Table turns are much longer. Even the weather affects timing; when it’s colder people don’t want to leave.”

Her goal is to fill seats. “The more people you get into your restaurant the more likely you’ll survive,” says Erickson. “But we don’t want it to be torture for people, that’s for sure.”

Comments | Topics: Blind Pig Bistro, Cantinetta, Ethan Stowell Restaurants

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