MAYBE this has happened to you. It's midafternoon on a Tuesday, you haven't thought about what to do for dinner, and you decide to go out that night. You call a restaurant you've been wanting to check out (can't be hard to get in on a Tuesday, right?) and ask for a reservation at 7.
"We can do 6:30 or 8:30," the reservationist says. You take 6:30, though you really don't want to eat that early. You arrive at the restaurant at 6:30, and the place is half-empty. You sit down and order. At 7, it's still half-empty. By 8, it's three-quarters empty.
So why, you ask yourself, couldn't they take me at 7?
The reasons are hard to pin down, but there seems to be an epidemic of this kind of restaurant craziness in L.A. In the last 10 weeks, this particular reservation runaround has happened to me no fewer than six times. At a difficult time in the business, it's hard to see how this can be a good thing for restaurateurs.
On a recent Tuesday night, my boss and I wanted to check out Tanzore, a new Indian restaurant in Beverly Hills. We called at 6:20, asking for a 7:30 reservation. They could take us at 8, the reservationist said. We showed up at 7, curious to see a new restaurant so busy on a Tuesday. We were seated right away -- because the restaurant was nearly empty (we were the only party seated in the smaller of two dining rooms).
At One Sunset in West Hollywood, which opened in late June, I called on a Thursday afternoon, asking for a 7 o'clock reservation that night; I was offered 7:15. "OK," I said, "but you really can't squeeze us in at 7?"
"Eighty-five people are coming at 7," the hostess said. I took the 7:15 but arrived at 6:45, just to get a gander at those 85 people cramming through the door. None of them had materialized by the time my guests arrived at 7. We were seated in the dining room, where only one other party was seated. In the half-hour between 6:45 and 7:15, two people came through the door into the dining room. Not 85.
Patric Kuh, restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine, reported this month in his review of Craft that in the course of six dinners there, he was never able to book a table later than 5:30, "only to spot plenty of free seats at 8."
According to industry insiders, business has been slow lately for L.A. restaurants. With so many new restaurants opening, competition for diners is fierce, they say. Menu prices have been rising and people aren't spending as freely. Yet when diners call and try to reserve at a time when the restaurant clearly has plenty of tables, they're told no.
With a little experience, you can even hear it coming on the phone: The reservationist asks, "What time were you hoping for?" and you know you've been had.
A 'dumb' habit
"THEY want you to think they're busy," says Joan Luther, a prominent Los Angeles restaurant publicist and consultant. "It's very silly and it's very dumb, but I just think they've gotten into the habit."
Difficulty getting the reservations she wants has driven one Los Angeles attorney to pretend she's a Hollywood publicist when she calls to reserve. (She requested anonymity for fear she'd have trouble booking tables in the future.) "What's happened to us numerous times throughout L.A.," she says, "is we will call and try and get a reservation at 8, and they say, 'No, we only have something at 6.' I'll call back as a publicist. I'll say, 'I'm "Tracy Rossman" at PMK and I'm publicist for so-and-so and we'd like a reservation.' " And it works, she says.
The problem seems to be peskiest if you want a table at 7, 7:30 or 8 -- that is, dinner time (for many of us, anyway).
On a recent Friday afternoon, I called West restaurant in the Angeleno hotel in Los Angeles, requesting a table for that night. "I can take you at 6, 6:30, 8:30 or 9," the reservationist said, without even asking what time I'd like.
"You can't squeeze us in at 7 or 7:30?" I asked.
"Could you come at 7:15?," she asked grudgingly. I said yes, feeling very lucky indeed to nab a precious table.
The dining room had only one other table seated when we arrived -- early, at 7. A few minutes later, that party left, and we were the only diners in the room until we finished dinner -- nearly two hours later.
The official response
I called Luciano Sautto, Hotel Angeleno's food and beverage director, for an explanation. First he told me the reservationist handled the call improperly. "That's just wrong," he said. "I have to investigate. We try to maximize the seating, but we want to accommodate anyone who calls. They've been instructed, if it's very, very busy, you need to push the reservation later or forward."
But the restaurant wasn't very busy, I pointed out. It was empty. Could there be something else at work? "I love to do two seatings," Sautto said, "so I can maximize the amount of people who come in."