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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Dining Options at the Click of a Mouse

May 14, 2000|LAURA BLY

Thanks to a little Internet sleuthing, I knew I had a good shot at a great meal when I showed up for dinner recently at Pazzo Ristorante in Portland, Ore. Through the reservation service OpenTable (http://www.opentable.com), I had confirmed the place's popularity at Zagat Survey (http://www.zagat.com), checked out its Web site (http://www.pazzo.com), downloaded a map and made a real-time booking for 7:30 p.m.

The upshot: I was greeted warmly by a hostess who noted that it was my first visit, taken promptly to my requested table in the main dining room, and served an order of smoked and fresh salmon ravioli that was just as scrumptious as the description I had printed out earlier.

Although still among a tiny minority of diners, I'm at the leading edge of a mushrooming trend. At least two dozen online services offer free restaurant reservations, some of which can be booked and confirmed instantly. Customers benefit by being able to browse restaurant options, check hours and directions, and note special requests from their desktops without being put on hold by a frazzled staff member; restaurants get free exposure and the ability to log reservations 24 hours a day.

Zagat Survey, whose popular Web site rates more than 30,000 restaurants in 45 North American and European markets, plans to launch online reservations this month through partnerships with several providers, including OpenTable, FoodLine (http://www.foodline.com) and ireserve (http://www.ireserve.com). Although only about 400 restaurants will offer Internet bookings initially, Zagat expects to build its roster at a rate of 75 a month.

"We think [online reservations] are going to be a very big deal," says Zagat's Michael Sheinfield. "But at this point, it's still a great unknown. We've turned on the tap, but we don't know what's going to come out of the faucet."

Indeed, the scope of online reservations services varies widely. Some act only as concierges: Customers e-mail a request that's forwarded by phone, fax or e-mail to the restaurant, with an answer generally returned within the hour. Most restaurants that accept online bookings are concentrated in such tech-savvy markets as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, and many services pad existing listings with ubiquitous promises of others "coming soon." In an effort to discourage no-shows, some services require customers to provide a credit card number as part of the booking.

What's more, says Sheinfield, "there's still the question of how much inventory a restaurant is going to make available, whether you call on the phone or go online."

"Everyone in America wants to eat at 7 p.m. on a Friday, so obviously that's going to be a difficult time to make a reservation," says Craig Utt of SavvyDiner (http://www.savvy diner.com), whose customers are mostly upscale business travelers. "But because we have a relationship with restaurants, you have a better chance of getting a table through us."

With online reservations trickling into Portland's Pazzo and the 15 other participating Kimpton Group restaurants at an average of six a day, wired diners don't yet hold an edge over those who phone ahead, notes Kimpton's Andrew Freeman.

Still, he adds: "This is a competitive business. We have to offer the guest every possible option, and this is just one more way for them to reach us."

A taste of some major players:

OpenTable: Offers real-time reservations at about 250 restaurants in 12 cities, including 104 in San Francisco. Plans to incorporate menus and reviews from Zagat, local newspapers and other sources.

RestaurantRow (http://www.restaurantrow.com): Maintains a database of 110,000 restaurants in 24 countries and can forward reservation requests to about 24,000. A "Top Table" option guarantees a table at about a dozen restaurants in New York and Chicago.

SavvyDiner: Acts as an online concierge for nearly 700 restaurants in 26 cities; listings are concentrated in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. Incorporates photos, menus and reviews.

ireserve: Still in its early stages, the site promises real-time reservations and/or appointments with health clubs, medical professionals and travel providers; it offers online bookings for about a dozen restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco.

Foodline: Offers real-time reservations at about 150 restaurants in five cities, including 90 in New York; the site lures "foodies" with interviews and recipes.

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Electronic Explorer appears monthly. E-mail Laura Bly at lsbly@aol.com.

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