Don't give up—you can still get in.
You've been dying to try the newest restaurant in your neighborhood, but after a solid two weeks of attempting to make a reservation for your piddly party of two, you're convinced you'll never be able to get in. So you do what any sane person would do: you call the next best hot spot, only to find out that the only way to dine there is to walk-in—and the line is always hours long.
You can't win: you either can't make a reservation, or you can't make a reservation.
"Some new restaurant operators think that by not allowing reservations, it creates a bit of 'buzz' and exclusivity, which in truth is not normally the case—as our current dining population wants ease more than exclusivity," explains Michael Kaplan, area director of operations for The Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills. Plus, "the world of OpenTable and Yelp Seat Me have taken the dining scene by storm." Any yet, those services cost big bucks for smaller establishments, Kaplan points out. "As we evolve as an industry—and as our costs are increasing day by day—restaurants are looking for ways to save on their average spend," he says. "Those reservation systems are wonderful marketing tools, but also add up from a cost perspective—so you may see smaller, independent businesses not want to splurge on those reservation systems."
Beyond that, holding a table for a couple or large group that may or may not show also creates the potential to lose money, points out Mark Holley, executive chef and owner of Holley's in Houston. "If a restaurant is consistently full, there is a high risk of losing earnings by holding a table for someone who may no-show," he says.
That's the why. Now it's time to talk about the how, how to get a seat anyway, that is. And right upfront, know that these tips are not going to open a secret back door to that small number of restaurants with reservation lists that fill up within seconds of becoming available once a month, but under more normal circumstances, they can go a long way.
Email the manager.
Whether you simply can't get in or the restaurant you wish to visit doesn't take reservations, reaching out to a manager can help more than you might think when it comes to getting you a table, says Scott Weiner, co-owner of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group in Chicago. "When I read a convincing email—one that gives me a chance to connect with a guest or make a regular for life—I will look for a way to make that person's night," he says.
Ask for a reservation in person.
It's a lot easier for a hostess to turn down a strange voice on the phone than it is to deny (an adorable) pout in person. There, face-to-face, kill the guy or gal controlling the books with kindness, says Kaplan. "You would be surprised what a smile, a calm demeanor, and simple manners will get you with a host or manager," he says. If you are still faced with a resounding "no," then you can ask to be placed on a waitlist.
Visit during non-peak hours.
Even the busiest restaurants have slow(er) hours. And if you can't guarantee a seat, those off-hours are the best time to visit, says Weiner. Think: On a Monday night, or any evening before 6 p.m. and after 9 p.m. Ask the host for those days and hours.
Dress to impress.
This top spot may not have a dress code, but Holley warns that if you're not dressed to the nines—or, you know, at least not dressed in sweats—you could hurt your chances of scoring a table that night or down the road. "If your attire is a distraction to other diners, a host or hostess may not be so eager to get you a table," Holley says.
Make friends with the bartender.
Let's say you can only swing by this coveted spot during prime-time. You've got no reservation—of course—and the manager refused to hear your polite pleas at the door. Then sidle up to the bar, Weiner recommends. "It always helps to buy a drink and let the bartender know that you are looking for a seat to dine at," he says. "Most smart bartenders love guests who dine with them; it gives them an opportunity to make a regular and have a higher check average." And they may work table magic.
Do not attempt a bribe.
Whatever you do, do not whip out your wallet in an attempt to get a reservation, Kaplan says. You will more than likely insult the host or manager, and you may not be welcomed back. "I have seen it countless times throughout my career in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Miami, and truth be told, it's insulting," he says. "We are all in it to make money, so if we truly had a table available, we would give it to you."