Restaurants are in the business of selling seats. A pro explains why your 5:30 reservation might help a struggling place do more of that.

By John Winterman
April 09, 2021
Advertisement
restaurant interior with diners at one of the tables
Credit: Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

On a warm, early spring evening, my brother and I crossed the threshold of a venerable New York City steakhouse to get our temperatures checked. Our reservation was at 6 p.m., which is  early for New York City, but we're responsible citizens hoping to support our restaurants by eating indoors again. The 136-year-old steakhouse looked no worse for the long shutdown. It still has that varnished, pre-Prohibition feel and invites diners to contemplate the smoking habits of past presidents and robber barons. But something was missing too—the high energy bar next door was dark, devoid of the Dollar Bill-wannabes who should have been there slugging back whisky and oysters. Instead, it was sad and forlorn, unusable with the current safety protocols and a hardship restaurants have to live with in the current COVID-19. But we knew our table was ready and socially distanced, the martinis would be cold, the iceberg lettuce crisp, and the prime rib juicy, and we were led upstairs to our table.

Let's dispel for a moment the notion that restaurants are "back," because restaurants didn't go anywhere. Those lucky enough to stay open had to push through by making dark deals and soul-wrenching decisions just to wake up dazed and blinking on the other side of this pandemic wondering what the hell just happened. Thousands of restaurants have permanently closed, and as a restaurant owner myself I am keenly aware that thousands more are one bad week away from the worst possible outcome. Restaurants post-pandemic remind me of my seven-year-old rosemary bush after a long winter: withered and pale, but not beaten, and oh-so-ready to blossom in the sun once again. But that takes time, and it takes a dining public willing to go just a little further for an industry they claim to love so much. What is needed most for restaurants like mine to come back strong, is for New Yorkers to start behaving like New Yorkers again and put their shoes back in their ovens, turn off Netflix, and go out.

My brother and I had early reservations, 6 p.m. There are advantages to dining at this time. The biggest win, especially for those who haven't dined out in over a year, is a nearly empty room, which is how it was last weekend while enjoying our prime rib. We were seated upstairs near a window. Four empty tables and a lone single diner across the room completed the scene. The bar was blocked off (though you could order a cocktail from your table) and half the furniture seemed to be in storage. In other words, there was plenty of room for us to feel safe, and—to be honest—a little sad. However, if you have not set foot inside a restaurant for 13 months, walking into a "full" restaurant, even at reduced capacity, no bar seating, and screens dividing the room, it might throw you into an existential crisis, so dining early averts this. The flip side is, with reduced capacities in many cities and states, restaurants desperately need two seatings. Insisting on a 7 p.m. booking doesn't help restaurants achieve that goal. 

The hidden secret here: restaurants sell seats, not food and beverage. The sale of the seat allows for the other transactions to happen. If a table has four seats, the restaurant needs to have two turns—sell eight seats—to make the math work, to stay open. This has never been more important an equation than it is right now. Dining earlier (or later) allows restaurants to maximize their potential for revenue, which in turn allows staff who haven't worked for a year to make some money, and helps the restaurant hire back more staff. My brother and I were paying our check right before 7:30, just as the restaurant was starting to fill up. The steakhouse turned our table, but ours was one of only a handful that would have turned. It was clear they were only really getting one seating that night. 

Diners need to give restaurants this last chance of survival by dining early or dining late. Your beloved 7:30 reservation will be there again next year when all the tourists are stuck with 5:30. Take advantage of this time of limited tourism and open tables, it won't last. 

When you finish your last virtual conference in the late afternoon, put on your hard clothes, ditch the sweats, and head out to your favorite restaurant at 5:30. You be greeted warmly, I assure you. You may have the dining room to yourself. Your drink will come out faster, your order will be taken promptly, and you will be back home before 8 p.m. so you can still binge-watch Netflix.