A writer battles language barriers and computer algorithms to score a table.
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I don’t know Thomas Keller. I don’t know David Chang. I don’t know René Redzepi, Grant Achatz or José Andrés. I didn’t know Ferran Adrià when he cooked at El Bulli, and I don’t know him now, when he doesn’t. But, no problem. I wanted to land some of the world’s most impossible restaurant reservations without calling in favors to their superstar chefs.
This task has gotten harder and harder in recent years. A particular au courant kind of restaurant seems built to stymie would-be diners: an extraordinary, minuscule establishment reflecting the unmediated vision of a single brilliant chef. Today, from the moment they open, such places rack up crazy Internet buzz and serious critical kudos. (Famously, César Ramirez’s 18-seat Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare won three Michelin stars before even getting a liquor license.)
Also, food geekdom is now a major tenet of nerd-cool. Your niece who just graduated from liberal arts college probably knows where to get the best pork belly entrée within 50 miles. San Pellegrino’s pronouncement of the world’s top tables is greeted each year with ever-mounting frenzy by those who obsessively follow tastemaking bloggers like The Ulterior Epicure and A Life Worth Eating, who organize their lives around profound dining experiences.
As a result, restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma and Paris’s Le Chateaubriand and Frenchie (which is famous for not even answering the phone) are all but impossible to crack. Noma reportedly gets 100,000 reservation requests per month.
This situation has pushed some people to insane lengths. The Ulterior Epicure’s Bonjwing Lee once woke up at 3 a.m. for several days in a row to call Heston Blumenthal’s British flagship, The Fat Duck, precisely when its reservation line opened—with no success. Lee says he knows cooks who emailed El Bulli every day for years, desperately seeking a reservation. And never got one.
My own attempt to score a table at Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago—which changes themes every few months and sells prepaid “tickets” instead of reservations—was equally futile. By the time I started looking, “season passes” for the three menus that will run until the end of 2012 were entirely sold out. In fact, the entire year sold out in six hours. The restaurant sometimes posts on its Facebook page that a same-night table for two is available, but I never found out about these in time. (If you want to dine at Next that badly, you could spend your days on its Facebook page until such a post shows up. That, though, sounds like a pretty miserable way to spend your time.)
Aiming for something that seems slightly less impossible, one recent morning I sat with two cell phones in front of me, waiting for a reservation line to open at 10:30 sharp.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare accepts reservations only on Mondays, for one week of dinners at a time, six weeks from when you call. I started dialing and redialing at 10:24 and got busy signals, in stereo. The iPhone stops counting your redials at 100, so I can’t tell you how many times I called, but it was not a small number. A repairman who happened to be in my apartment took pity on me and started calling on his phone, too.
Then at 10:52, someone answered—and put me on hold. One minute passed. Two minutes. Three. A very specific terror blossomed: I will hear a click, a silence and then a dial tone. But somewhere shy of six long minutes, a manager picked up, and I got a reservation for two at 7 p.m. on a Thursday.
Jon Fine learns strategies for getting restaurant reservations.© Peter Arkle
I approached The French Laundry in Napa Valley more casually. I called at random, asking for openings or cancellations. I prowled OpenTable. I got nowhere. So one day, I again sat in front of two phones, serially redialing, a few minutes before the reservation line opened at 10 a.m. Pacific time. At precisely 10 a.m., the busy signal stopped and a kind reservationist told me just two tables remained for dinner in exactly two months, at 5:30 or 9:30. I pounced on the 5:30. Do you get cranky if you can’t eat during prime time? Well, I am not you, and I have a table at The French Laundry.
It was time to try something harder. New York City’s 12-seat Momofuku Ko famously uses an online-only reservation system. Diners must rapidly click through a number of screens, starting precisely at 10:00 each morning, to secure a spot. Getting into Ko is like trying to buy tickets for a U2 show in Dublin. A Life Worth Eating’s Adam Goldberg, a software engineer, once wrote a bit of code to book the next available Momofuku Ko reservation. But so many humans were clicking away at the same time that his program didn’t work.
My method was this: Get on the Ko site each morning at 9:58 and an even number of seconds, and then count “one-two-three” at a tempo that took two seconds, nodding my head in time, and then hit “refresh.” (This must have looked incredibly dorky.) But I always sped up a little, like an anxious heartbeat, and then landed on odd-numbered seconds, and as 10 a.m. approached, I’d freak out and start stabbing “refresh” frantically. I’d get to the grid breathless, all but one or two reservations would be gone, and when I clicked, I’d be told that someone else had grabbed them first.
But, as with all video games, you get better at Ko through repeated failure. On the ninth day, I clicked on an open slot just in time. That morning, I walked around puffed-up and goofy-grinning, like I’d found out the hottest girl in high school had a crush on me, too. I wanted to hug strangers. Over a restaurant reservation. That would have been spectacularly dorky.
But sometimes, getting in requires more than extreme telephone persistence and gaming online systems. Sukiyabashi Jiro is a legendary 10-seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, run forever by the octogenarian Jiro Ono. The restaurant, bloggers warn, makes no effort to accommodate non-Japanese speakers.
I don’t speak Japanese. Thus, a two-pronged strategy. One prong: I’d call Jiro, read a set of Japanese phrases, and hope it works. Second prong: Have an expat pal, a translator in Tokyo, call.
My Japanese consists of “hello,” “thank you very much,” “kick-ass” and several fish species, so Prong One required training. I found a site that had audio files alongside translations and practiced: “Do you speak English?” “Does anyone there speak English?” “I don’t speak Japanese.” After a few days of this, I picked up the phone and called Jiro, and someone answered.
I stared at my phrases and said, carefully, “Hello. Excuse me. Do you speak English?” (“Konnichiwa. Summi masen. E-go ga de-ki mas ka?”)
A lengthy response followed. In Japanese. I looked at my crib sheet again. “Excuse me. I don’t speak Japanese.” Then, “Excuse me. Does anyone speak English?” A pause. Then, in accented but comprehensible English, the person replied: “Ah—no. No English.”
I meant to say good-bye, but I was kind of flustered, so I said “summi masen” for the fourth time and hung up. Then I heard from my pal in Tokyo. He’d called Jiro and immediately landed two seats at 7 p.m., around six weeks out. No drama. No agonizing wait on hold, even. No video-game skills required.
Still, all told, I lost at least an entire workday begging for the right to pay for astonishingly expensive meals. Japanese pronunciation doesn’t learn itself, you know.
But there was ample reward for my many efforts at securing these reservations: meals offering tiny shocks of surprise and delight that will stay with me like the riffs of a favorite song. At Chef’s Table, there was madai, a sea bream, with curry foam flecked with a few grains of sushi rice, and a seafood custard with smoky dashi laced with truffle, both of which I’ll be thinking about for a long time. At Momofuku Ko, the just-punk-rock-enough tasting menu ranged from the earnest (a perfect potato soup with daikon and lamb rib) to the playful (parsnip doughnuts with a parsnip-caramel ice cream). I can’t get them out of my mind. If you’re reading this, chances are you understand that such experiences are worth the brain-frying hassle of iPhone juggling and labyrinthine computer algorithms. Also this: It never hurts to have friends who speak Japanese.
New York City writer Jon Fine is always early to get a table at his local favorite, Marlow & Sons.
Hassle-Free Restaurant Reservations
Some great tables are easy to score.© Peter Arkle
Restaurant blogs The Ulterior Epicure and A Life Worth Eating select three world-class spots where getting a table isn’t a struggle.
The more experimental of chef Sean Brock’s two Charleston, SC, spots. mccradysrestaurant.com.
A Restaurant El Bulli–style avant-garde food on Spain’s Costa Blanca. quiquedacosta.es.
Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera refines and reinterprets centuries of Mexican food. pujol.com.mx.
Video: Chefs’s Restaurant Picks