By Alison Arnett, Globe Staff
Making dinner reservations can be stressful. You want to go to one of the new, hip places but you don't have time to call all of them. You've promised your spouse that you'd take care of booking a table for Saturday night. Now it's late in the evening. Even the restaurant has gone to bed.
Can the modern problem-solver -- the Internet -- help? With the click of a mouse, we can shop for a flirty skirt, buy groceries, schedule our social lives. Now we can arrange to eat dinner at 154 establishments in the region. OpenTable.com, the largest online reservations service, says that more than 10 million diners made reservations through its operation since 1998. The San Francisco-based company sells both hardware and software to restaurants.
But even with the success of OpenTable and the convenience of going online in the middle of the night, some Boston restaurateurs and managers say most of their bookings are still made by phone. Still, the person taking the reservation is going online into the same files used by customers clicking a mouse. When a restaurant signs up with OpenTable, all reservations -- both by phone and online -- go into the same software, which is updated as the reservations come in. The really helpful aspect of computerized reservations, managers and restaurateurs say, is that the online system can make restaurant personnel better at their jobs. But the art of reservations still depends on the human touch.
Union Bar & Grille in the South End was one of the early adopters of the online service. Jeffrey Gates, co-owner and manager, says, "The best invention for restaurants after the frying pan is the computer." Gates had other reasons for looking into the system. In the late '90s, several online services were trying to attract clients. After visiting restaurants in New York that used online services, Gates decided OpenTable.com would be best for his purposes. It wasn't so much the online booking system itself that attracted him. The service gave him a way to manage information about the diner.
The staff "makes far less mistakes," Gates says, when the reservationist is able to write in a computer file notes about food allergies, the wedding anniversary date of regular customers, or what table they might prefer. The software organizes that information easily, he says, and even when he's not at the restaurant, managers can check to make sure that the couple is greeted warmly and that a candle gets on top of the dessert.
Thomas Layton, OpenTable CEO, says that making reservations online was "an avant-garde idea in '99." Now a younger population is comfortable making reservations through a website. One interesting aspect, Layton says, is that about 30 percent of online reservations are made between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., hours when restaurant reservationists might not be working.
One of those early online reservations companies -- iSeatz -- started with a software plan but ran into technical problems and reconfigured its approach. Kenneth Purcell, CEO of New Orleans-based iSeatz, says the company has only a few restaurants in Boston, and now is repositioning itself by selling prepaid travel packages that include dining and entertainment. Layton of OpenTable agrees that the computerized system is almost better from a service angle. Beyond managing bookings and storing customer preferences, Layton says, the system can assign waiters to tables and keep track of whether diners are just beginning their appetizers or finishing desserts. He calls the system "a glorified PC designed to work in a stressful" high-pressure environment. Large restaurants might have several systems in place. Entry-level costs are a couple of hundred dollars a month. Gates of Union Bar & Grille pays $100 a month to lease the equipment, $100 a month for the software, and a fee of $1 per person for each reservation made online.
At Davio's in Park Square, manager Eleanor Arpino says she and her managers use OpenTable extensively. "You can track everything about the guests," she says, "a particular table, particular wine, and quite honestly, if something went wrong." Arpino says she can plan ahead, say for extra crowds after the Boston Marathon, or the staff can see how Mother's Day business was. Davio's owner Steve DiFillippo had started with the system at his restaurant in Philadelphia, when the software company was starting up and offering incentives. He was so impressed, Arpino says, that the new Boston Davio's opened with it and the Cambridge Davio's followed suit.
At Icarus in the South End, about one-fourth of the reservations come in online, and manager Keri Mega says, "we wouldn't be able to function" without it. "At first, I was reluctant to give up pen and paper," says Chris Douglass, chef and owner. "One thing that's nice is that when people make a reservation online they get an e-mail reminding them" the day before. Layton of OpenTable says the reminder cuts down on no-shows, a major problem for restaurants, because it's so easy to cancel when the e-mail reminder arrives.
But for all the advantages of doing business online, humans are still in control. The system helps to personalize service only if reservationists take the information down. There are things about the system that frustrate managers. Union's Gates says he'd like it to be more interactive so that a reservationist could instant message other area restaurants to see if a table could be found elsewhere when his own place is full, or check flight schedules for a patron dashing to catch a plane.
The booking system doesn't mean all seats are up for grabs every night. "We have the ability to block out tables at certain times," Arpino of Davio's says. "You can control when you allow those Web reservations." Part of that control is saving tables for regulars; you never want to alienate people who patronize you all the time. Gates says it's not difficult to fill Union or any other popular place on a Saturday night since many local restaurants aren't too big. However, if all the dining slots were sold online, you'd "have a lot of sweet people you don't know," and all the familiar faces would be shut out.
"Any successful restaurant has to hold back tables," Gates says. He's wary of the old Yogi Berra saying: "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded."