It’s an all-too familiar scenario: an out-of-town couple visiting New York for their anniversary want to dine at the hottest spot in town. With visions of a Friday night 8pm dinner in their heads, they plan ahead and call a week in advance. On the first try, the phone goes unanswered. Undeterred, they call back again and again and again, until someone finally answers … only to place the call on hold. When the voice finally comes back, the request for a prime Friday night reservation receives a curt “fully committed” and the rough sound of the dial tone. Short of calling back and feigning celebrity status, what to do? Simple: check out our guide to scoring the hottest table in town.
Do your homework by visiting the restaurant’s website and researching its reservation policy. Then follow it to the letter. Hard-to-get-into spots such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se take reservations one month to the day in advance via phone and on Opentable.com, starting at 10am. If you want that great table overlooking Columbus Circle, a minute past 10 is one minute too late. Sometimes restaurants will take reservations for special seatings. For instance in the Momofuku family of restaurants, Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar are walk-in only, excepting the “Fried Chicken” and “Duck” dinner nights, which can be reserved online. The popular Momofuku Ko, however, only takes online reservations, starting 10 days prior at 10am. And you’d be surprised what you learn via a restaurant’s website—Mission Chinese, known for its two to three hour waits, quietly rolled out a one-week advance reservation system on its site. It was up for weeks before word got out to the press.
Get on the Waiting List
You’ve researched. You’ve strictly followed the policies. And still no table. Now what? Some reservationists at top restaurants such as Blue Hill or Eleven Madison Park will soften the blow by asking you if you’d like to be placed on their waiting list. Your answer should be “yes.” But don’t wait for an invitation to be placed on a waiting list. Ask to be placed on one even if a reservationist doesn’t offer. Many times restaurants will keep the fact that they have a waiting list quiet. And the quiet lists tend to be the shorter lists. One caveat: do make sure you program the restaurant’s number into your phone as when that call comes you need to be there to say “yes” before the reservationist moves on down the list. And if your phone never rings and the day approaches, there’s no harm in calling back day-of to check on your status.
Use Your Concierge
File under planning ahead: does your desired restaurant happen to be in a hotel? If so, you might want to book your stay at that very hotel to ensure a table at that restaurant. April Bloomfield’s popular The Breslin, within the Ace Hotel, does not accept reservations. However, if you are a guest at the Ace, the concierge will place you on the restaurant’s “preferred” list. No matter where you are staying, check in with your concierge anyway. Your hotel might have a special “in” with hard-to-get-into restaurants. And if you tip your concierge, you’ll be surprised at the hot tables he or she can uncover.
Check Your Credit Card Benefits
Some credit cards have concierge services that will find that special seat for you. American Express Platinum Card holders, for example, can gain access to popular restaurants through their Platinum Dining reservations. And check your cards’ monthly newsletters for exclusive events at top restaurants. AmEx Platinum and Centurion card holders were recently treated to a unique night at Mario Batali’s Del Posto along with musical guest Peter Frampton and the opportunity to test drive new Aston Martin models.
If you’re flexible on dining time, your chances of getting a table increase dramatically. Sure, you might have to dine at 5:30pm or 10:30pm, but if you have theater tickets, those times can work well. Also, consider lunch. Often a restaurant’s lunch menu is the same as, or very similar to, the dinner menu. You’ll be eating prize-winning cuisine, usually for less money, and without the hassle of month-ahead reservations. Another trick is to forget weekends and try to dine between Sunday and Wednesday when there are more openings. Finally, if you’ve actually scored a reservation at what you consider to be an undesirably late hour, show up to the restaurant early, check in with the host and politely ask if there are any earlier openings. You never know—a party might be running late or have cancelled and their loss is your gain. Just be prepared to wait at the bar if the strategy doesn’t work.
Use Social Media
Follow desirable restaurants on Twitter and Facebook—they will sometimes use those platforms to announce last-minute availability. For hard-to-score seats at Mario Batali’s Babbo, for example, check Twitter daily at 3pm when the restaurant’s last-minute openings are listed (@BabboRistorante). Also, post where and when you’d like to go on your own accounts and tag the spots. You never know who your friends know.
Call for Cancellations
Assuming your restaurant of choice doesn’t have a waiting list, give it a buzz the day you wish to dine and ask if there are any cancellations. Late afternoon is a good time to check in, and if you’re extra polite, you may be placed at the top of the list when the next cancellation call comes in. Another good time to try: during inclement weather, as many diners might not want to drive into the city from the suburbs (or leave their warm apartment) and cancel. If it’s a snowy day in Gotham, chances are you’ll get lucky.
Some restaurants save seats exclusively for walk-ins. At Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin, for example, the front lounge is walk-in only. Guests can order the dining room’s four-course prix fixe as well as the a la carte menu, which is a great way to sample Ripert’s four-star touch with fish. Even if a restaurant doesn’t reserve seats for walk-ins, showing up and inquiring about cancellations may work. If there are any no-shows, you’ll be in the right place at the right time.
Remember that Size Matters
Keep in mind, the smaller the group, the better your chances of slipping into an of-the-moment restaurant. A single or couple can always belly up to the bar, too. If you happen to be a larger group, ask the reservationist about alternatives to the main dining room. Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto, for example, has both a chef’s table in the kitchen and a private room available exclusively for large groups.