By Katy McLaughlin & Sarah Nassauer
Continued from Part 2
Making matters more competitive, in today's world of food blogs and reality shows about chefs, that little hole-in-the-wall can now become a global sensation. A case in point is El Bulli, perhaps the world's hardest-to-land dining destination. The 50-seat restaurant is in Rosas, Spain, 110 miles north of the Barcelona airport. Open only between April and September each year, El Bulli books its entire season in mid-October of the prior year.
New services that sell reservations are also cropping up. Primetimetables.com5, for example, books tables at top Manhattan restaurants and resells them. Buyers pay a $450 annual membership fee plus about $30 per reservation. The site, which specializes in last-minute reservations, was launched last year by Pascal Riffaud, a former concierge at the St. Regis in New York and the Ritz in Paris. Mr. Riffaud says he won't reveal his technique for getting tables. When diners sign up they get a welcome email explaining that reservations are made under fake names. This is so they can be secured in advance.
Another site, Weekend Epicure NYC, launched in February. It sells two-person reservations at New York City restaurants for a $35 service fee, and also uses fake names. Restaurants say they don't like scalping or the use of fake names, but say they have no way to crack down on either practice. "We aren't going to check IDs at the door," says Drew Nieporent, owner of Myriad Restaurant Group, which owns Nobu in New York and London.
Hotel, credit-card and, more recently, personal concierges are also snapping up more seats these days: American Express offers a concierge service that makes reservations for its Platinum and Centurion card members at about 1,000 restaurants around the world. For the past two years, the service has booked 50% more tables for clients each year, says Young Yun, senior lifestyle benefits manager. Some restaurants, including New York's Le Cirque and Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif., hold a table a night exclusively for the service, while other restaurants say they treat American Express like any other concierge and try to accommodate it when possible, with no guarantees.
Often, the only advantage concierges have over the average person looking for a table is that they know when to call. Most in-demand restaurants start taking reservations somewhere between 30 and 90 days in advance, and begin taking calls at a specific time. American Express "calls every day at 9 a.m.," says Scott Reinhardt, assistant general manager at Gramercy Tavern in New York.
At San Francisco's Quince, tables are booked one month to the calendar day in advance -- meaning tables for April 15 are opened up on March 15, and the reservationist starts taking calls at exactly noon. Co-owner Lindsay Tusk says that tables usually fill up within the first half-hour. Alinea in Chicago opens its books two months ahead on the first day of each month; so, at 10 a.m. April 1, the restaurant will begin taking reservations for the month of June. Another Chicago hot spot, Frontera Grill, doesn't take reservations, but the restaurant sets aside a few tables every night for people who call to reserve at 8:30 a.m. on the day they want to dine.
OpenTable users can have a significant advantage at some restaurants, namely those that start taking names on a specific, advance day. Because spots go up on the site starting at midnight -- many hours before a restaurant reservationist starts taking live calls -- booking online gives diners a head start.