It’s quite easy to wrap our heads around the function of a dinner reservation. We secure a seat in a restaurant at an appointed time, whereupon we will eat an appetizer, entree, and perhaps a dessert. Our time there may expand or contract depending on the fuss level of the place or our chattiness, but the formula more or less stays the same.
What does a bar reservation conjure, however? Pre-pandemic, we associated it mostly with formal, speakeasy-style cocktail dens or nightclubs with velvet ropes and bottle service. Covid-19 hastened consumer acceptance of bar reservations, as struggling businesses sought safe ways to remain in business when the world reopened. Now more operators are adopting the practice, which enables them to more efficiently prep and spread demand, and improve table service. Yet others are less keen to adopt a reservation system, not just for the sake of the bottom line, but a far more metaphysical question: Do bookings change the very energy of the place?
Their hesitation is partly due to the spontaneous role that bars play in our lives — as a tangential kind of entertainment. The question, “Do you want to get drinks?” can take infinite paths, from a fancy cocktail before dinner or a movie to posting up at a neighborhood haunt after work. Sometimes you do stay for the intended round or two; other times one drink becomes four and your night changes course.
“I remember [Bon Vivants Hospitality founder] Josh Harris saying, ‘Once you put a host stand in a bar it ceases to be a bar,’” muses Matt Tocco, beverage director of Strategic Hospitality in Nashville. He doesn’t disagree, though he ponders whether we should broaden our notion of what a bar is, like we do with restaurants.
The Reservation Identity Crisis
It’s maybe no wonder that when I posed the fairly straightforward questions of whether bars accept reservations and why, I was often met with sighs and quiet chuckling from their operators.
“I’m laughing because we are reconsidering our approach now and weighing the positives and negatives of all of it,” says Dave Kaplan, co-owner of Death & Co. In all its 16 years of operation, the moody, East Village 54-seater has remained “proudly first come, first served” — unless maybe you’re a New York Knick or bartending legend. For the rest of us, that might mean an hour-long wait, or, if it’s after 10:30 on a Saturday night, not getting in at all.
“To be frank, it has been the best thing for the business historically,” Kaplan says. “We’ve had limited down time for tables, and it’s also, we felt, on the more hospitable side in that we’re not rushing or pressuring people into a time-based commitment once they’re here. It’s tough to know if they’re going to come in for a quick drink or hunker down.”
Once Death & Co. sprung outposts in Denver (2018) and Los Angeles (2019), the owners reconsidered that equation, instituting reservations for the first time in L.A. because of its two-room footprint and location in a sprawled, car-centric city.
“Reservations in L.A. feel for the most part like they’re advantageous for both the business and the guest,” Kaplan says. “We can juggle in a way a restaurant does, if, say, a table isn’t ready. And it feels more hospitable to arm people with the knowledge that if they have a reservation, they’re going to get in.”
Denver has the luxury of space and plenty of walkable bars nearby to not necessitate reservations. However, the team remains on the fence about what reservations would do to New York’s identity. Would customers be happy or upset? Would the bar lose its mystique?
The Covid Effect
Reservations always felt too formal for seminal New Orleans cocktail bar Cure, which opened in 2009. As an early iteration of the neighborhood bar slinging high-end cocktails, Cure was forced into a “higher-volume, lower-service model” from the outset given its popularity, says owner Neal Bodenheimer. The bar briefly instituted reservations on Resy in 2017 — mainly to reassure that those making the trip uptown weren’t coming just to be turned away — but dropped the platform again in 2018, ironically after winning the James Beard Award for Best Bar. “We got clobbered for the next six months and just couldn’t service it,” Bodenheimer adds.
But after the pandemic hit and the city mandated reservations as bars crept back open, the model proved transformative for Cure. Although the bar is still the engine, reservations have enabled the table experience to finally catch up.
“We realized really quickly that by being committed to doing the things we resisted all those years, we could control the room so much better and give people the experience they’d come to expect and desire,” Bodenheimer says. “Financially it’s been huge for us. But more than anything — and this is why I don’t think I’m ever going to go back — it’s being able to give guests a level of service we always wanted to give and had challenges doing.”
Sales are up significantly as the model enables the bar to spread demand and use seats more efficiently. Customers with reservations often stay longer and order food. The bar has lost some regulars, but now the staff knows when a regular comes in, thanks to data collection through the platform — which has vastly improved information sharing staff-wide, Bodenheimer says.
As customers and bars shed some of their collective conditioning about reservations, more newcomers are adopting them outright. Diversión in Houston has taken reservations since opening in 2021. A spokesperson tells me this helps the bar maximize its limited real estate, prep more efficiently, control the pace of service, and mirror the guest experience of its adjacent sibling restaurant, Degust.
The Mystique of the Line
Tocco similarly liked being able to track covers when The Patterson House started taking reservations in 2020 due to Covid mandates. “It felt like working in a restaurant more; we could predict more — like, don’t juice as much tonight; it’s looking slow,” he says.
As a cocktail institution in a neighborhood full of college bars, The Patterson House was also able to accommodate tourists and residents who might’ve stayed away because they didn’t want to wait. After shifting to a hybrid approach once restrictions were lifted, the bar stopped taking reservations in October 2022, largely because it hurt the bottom line via fewer turned tables and lower check averages.
“We weren’t selling as much as we used to, specifically on Friday and Saturday night,” Tocco says. “When we run as first come first served, we keep every seat pretty much full all night long. Now the host was hesitant to seat people at a table with an upcoming reservation for fear of getting burned. If you don’t work in service, you don’t realize that a reservation is like a hope more than anything else.”
On a metaphysical level, reservations also lowered the energy of the room and, seemingly, changed the very function of the bar. Indeed, something happens when customers make the calculation that waiting in line is worth our time. We’re going to earn — and relish — that seat.
“I can’t prove this, but it seemed like people made a reservation because they were in town and this was a place to come, have a drink, look around, then head to the next place,” Tocco says. “Whereas when people are waiting, the energy is building, and by the time they get inside after they’ve waited 20 minutes, they’re going to have more than one drink. It builds on itself.”
Even the reservations converts at Cure still discuss whether a bar with reservations still feels like a bar. Bodenheimer maintains it’s more about how the folks who work there make us feel — which is why he’s come full circle, as said folks are now better equipped to serve us. So much of bar operation comes down to balancing what’s best for the business financially and what pleases the most people — and having empathy for those who aren’t quite getting their way, Tocco adds.
We’re all bringing some kind of emotional baggage to the bar, after all.
On that note, Kaplan still isn’t any closer to a decision on Death & Co. New York, which remains walk-in only, for now. “This conversation is making me reflect on how much reservation adoption is tied up in our own baggage or how we’re trained to go out,” he laughs.
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