Photo illustration by MONEY; (restaurant) Getty Images/iStockphoto; (app) courtesy of Seated

It's win-win.

Paul Schrodt
April 25, 2018

Eating out is a wonderful break from ordinary life. That is, until you have the crushing realization of how much money you could’ve saved staying in and cooking.

But slight wallet relief is in sight with Seated, a new app that is literally paying users for the experience of dining at acclaimed restaurants. The idea behind it is that by incentivizing people to make reservations, keep them, pay a certain amount, and return, it will create a loyal and desirable fan base. They’ve partnered with Lyft, Amazon and Starbucks to offer rewards through those companies when you visit one of its available venues — and by eating and paying your check, you’ll get money at one of those places that you choose.

The app launched last year and is currently available in 14 cities across the United States—metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

I love eating and drinking out, but frequently feel bad about the dent it puts in my checking account, so I was intrigued by the premise of Seated. I tried it, and here’s what I found.

A limited but curated list of restaurants

Seated bills itself as a discovery app for the best restaurants in your neighborhood. If you happen to live in an area the app serves, you’ll find that it generally has a short, but worthy stash of options.

Where I live in Brooklyn, I found the seafood-focused Extra Fancy, as well as The Saint Austere, a small plates-style place I had been meaning to check out. Not far away in Manhattan, I spotted the beloved Tuome and Hecho en Dumbo, my favorite Mexican restaurant in the city (though it was incorrectly listed as Hecho de Dumbo in Seated). All provided rewards, which generally range from $10 to $50 and can be put toward the partner company of your choosing, for making a reservation and meeting a certain bill minimum. But reward amounts along with bill minimums vary depending on the eatery and party size. For instance, I found that the highly rated French bistro Le Coq Rico provided a $25 credit at Lyft, Amazon, or Starbucks, but it also required shelling out $100.

Rewards that work in the background

While Seated has relationships with the restaurants it curates, it works with minimum hassle to get you a table and rewards. I wanted to go to Saint Austere, so I made a same-day reservation for dinner with a friend. The actual reservation was completed through the online reservation platform Resy. I didn’t need to mention Seated to a server to get my $7 Lyft credit (plus a bonus $5 as a newcomer to the app using the promo code “welcome”), but I did need to take a picture of the itemized receipt and upload it to the Seated app to confirm we had spent $40 before tax and tip. If you don’t do that, you’re not getting your reward, though given that Seated tends to work with higher-end establishments, meeting minimums isn’t hard.

Would I have gone out to dinner at that particular restaurant on that night otherwise? Probably not, but the dinner was indeed delicious, and by the next day, I had a $12 credit in my Lyft app as a result of something I do regularly. And even though my friend and I split the $107.22 bill, I got the full reward as the person who made the reservation. That means a luxurious, free trip home on another night when I would’ve normally taken the subway.

The drawbacks of a new app

The only real problem with Seated is that it can be tough to find what you actually want in the app. Seated promotes certain restaurants with higher money prizes, known as “Surging Rewards,” which may not interest you. The filtering system can make it difficult to narrow down what’s attractive. When I recently tried getting a table, the new walk-in feature came up as a default, even though I was trying to reserve well in advance.

You also are limited to how many times you can claim a reward from the same restaurant — according to the app’s FAQ, the premise is “discovery” so in order to keep reaping the benefits, you’ll have to be willing to branch out.

Seated could also use tweaks, and probably a few more restaurants, but it delivers on its basic premise. By the time I was done with dinner, I had finished off steak, pasta, and octopus with my friend, along with two glasses of wine each. My apartment was easily accessible by train, so I decided to save my Lyft transportation for the future, when I would normally be paying. A free ride, after all, is hard to deny.

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