A table for two is only a Web site away.
By Kelly Kendall
Depending on how you made your reservation, managers at the Oceanaire Seafood Room know where you sat last time, who your server was, whether you like your Caesar dressing on the side and no olive oil on your swordfish. They also know how often you've come in before -- and how many times you've blown off a reservation without calling to cancel.
Big Brother may be monitoring your every restaurant move, but he also wants to help you snag a table. Many diners are turning to online services like OpenTable.com and restaurant row.com as an alternative to calling around for a table: You can browse restaurants by cuisine and price range, then reserve a table with a few keystrokes.
Some restaurants also use the system to track customer details, from birthdays and anniversaries to their favorite type of gelato, while others rely on them purely for taking reservations.
Though the services may not be for everybody -- at this point, restaurant selection remains limited and there's the inevitable technical glitch -- many diners find reserving a table online faster, easier and more convenient than picking up the phone.
OpenTable, for instance, is free to diners (restaurants pay a fee) and links directly to a restaurant's electronic reservation book, offering an up-to-the-moment look at what's available on a given night. When customers enter a reservation for one of the 12 featured restaurants, it's instantly recorded in the restaurant's own system and confirmed to you in seconds via e-mail.
Restaurant Row is more of a directory, with a more comprehensive listing of restaurants, only a handful of which offer "online reservations." Diners don't make them directly -- Restaurant Row acts as a middleman. For a fee ($4.95 per booking or $7.95 per month), the service will take your electronic rez request and call the restaurant for you, then call you back to confirm.
Other online restaurant reservation services, such as iSeatz.com and www.DinnerBroker.com, don't include restaurants in the Indianapolis area but can be used by travelers looking for restaurants in unfamiliar cities.
Some sites offer dining discounts for off-peak hours. OpenTable allows diners to accumulate points with every reservation they make, eventually earning a $10 dining certificate good at any of their featured restaurants.
Theresa Brown has been using OpenTable for about a year, mostly to book tables for her colleagues at National City Bank. She heard about it from somebody at work, and now reserves through OpenTable once or twice a week.
"It's just so simple," says Brown. "You put in the time, date, pull up the restaurant, and it's all there."
It's easier than calling in a reservation, says Brown, because she can see at a glance which restaurants have tables during the time slots she wants. The 24/7 availability is another plus.
"If I have to cancel a reservation, I don't have to wait for the restaurant to open -- I cancel it first thing," says Brown.
According to OpenTable, more than 30 percent of all reservations booked online are made between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., when many restaurants aren't accepting phone reservations. The San Francisco-based service launched in 1999 and features restaurants in 42 states and seven countries and Puerto Rico.
The number of diners seated at tables reserved through OpenTable grew 108 percent during 2004, according to the San Francisco-based company. It debuted in Indianapolis in 2003 with the addition of St. Elmo's Steakhouse. Today, the area restaurants on Open Table, represent strictly the pricier end of the local dining spectrum, including: Ruth's Chris Steak House; Morton's, The Steakhouse; and Mikado Japanese Restaurant.
"Any restaurant that takes reservations is a potential Open Table customer," says spokeswoman Ann Shepherd. So far, she says, it just happens that restaurants that have adopted the system are "all white tablecloth restaurants."
Burger joints might shy away from the cost: Around $1,000 for set-up, then around $200 per month. OpenTable also gets $1 per online seat booked through its site, and 25 cents for seats reserved through a restaurant's own site, using the OpenTable system.
While the restaurant selection is limited, OpenTable hopes to attract more. Last year, restaurants adopting the system grew more than 50 percent, now numbering over 3,300.
John Livengood, president and CEO of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana, expects to see similar systems blossom. They're helpful for travelers, he says. Besides browsing the restaurant scene of a perhaps unfamiliar city, out-of-town diners don't have to rack up long-distance charges in search of an available table.
"There is a whole generation of people who do everything on their Blackberry," says Livengood. "Those who want their business will do what is necessary to welcome them."
Chris Grumet, Restaurant Row operations manager, says customers aren't charged the $4.95 fee until a reservation is successfully made. You e-mail Restaurant Row with a reservation request, and the company calls the restaurant on your behalf, then gets back to you to confirm. Grumet says the service lets you know if the restaurant doesn't have anything available or doesn't actually take reservations.
Brown says she has never had any problems with her reservations on OpenTable. Ryan Nelson, head chef of the Oceanaire, says they haven't had any trouble either. On average, two or three reservations a night were made online, a number that he says is below Oceanaire restaurants in other cities.
Nelson would like to start using it more to track customer preferences, anniversaries and so forth. It's a hit when they do.
"People are really excited about us knowing when it's their anniversary, or you ate at this table last time you were here," says Nelson. "You leave them with that, 'How did they figure that out?'. It gives us that nice little edge."