Roughly one month into New York City’s unprecedented experiment with outdoor dining, the city’s obsession with restaurant reservations appears to be back in full swing. Earlier this month, popular NYC restaurants — including Wayla, Rezdôra, and Williamsburg pasta hit Lilia — started listing their patio and backyard tables on online reservation platforms. Within a few hours of launching, nearly all of their tables were already booked two weeks in advance.
“People want to eat a sit-down meal that fucking badly,” says Greg Baxtrom, the chef and owner of popular Prospect Heights restaurant Olmsted, which has shifted to a reservation-only model for outdoor dining.
For some customers, the return of restaurant reservations has revived time-old rituals: snatching up last-minute reservations through Resy, setting 7 a.m. alarms to nab an early table, or doing neither of those things and opting for a 10 p.m. dinner instead. For the owners of popular NYC restaurants, though, they say the experience has marked one of the first times that they’ve known how to prepare for next week — let alone tomorrow — since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the most difficult restaurants to get a reservation at right now are the very restaurants that New Yorkers struggled to get seated at in pre-pandemic times. Popular Manhattan restaurants like Wayla, Pastis, Don Angie, Carbone, and the newly-opened Dante West Village have seen the most attention from customers so far, according to a spokesperson for restaurant reservation platform Resy — as have Brooklyn favorites like Olmsted, Oxomoco, Le Crocodile, and Miss Ada.
At some of the popular NYC spots, reservations are still a little easier to come by than during pre-pandemic times, in part because fewer people are dining out right now. At Miss Ada, in Fort Greene, tables for dinner can still be booked day-of, whereas in pre-pandemic times, a 7 p.m. weeknight reservation might be made more than a week in advance. Meanwhile, at the formerly impossible-to-reserve Carbone, tables for dinner are often still available by mid-afternoon.
The same can’t be said for many other places, which were also some of the toughest restaurants to get in to before the pandemic. Williamsburg hotspot Lilia reopened for outdoor dining in mid-July, and the restaurant was booked a month-out that same day; Wayla on the Lower East Side listed itself on Resy in late June and by 9:00 p.m. that day, most of its reservations for the next two weeks had been booked; and Rezdora’s reservations were snatched up for two weeks in just 15 minutes. At the time of writing, none of the aforementioned restaurants have a table available for the next two weeks.
The decision to bring back reservations was mostly a financial one, says Baxtrom, of Olmsted, where reservations are currently booked through the end of the month. “I can’t afford to not have every table filled right now,” he says. Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, Olmsted reserved half of its tables for walk-in customers and did not accept reservations on Monday.
Right now, that’s not possible, he says. “Every single table that we have is going to be listed on Resy,” he says. “It has to be that way. If one table doesn’t show up, we’re going to feel that loss of business.”
West Village Italian restaurant Don Angie has reserved some of its tables for walk-ins, its owners shared in an email to Eater, but they added that doing a walk-in only business model would have been a “gamble.” Meanwhile, Wayla has instated 90-minute table limits to ensure efficient turnover.
For others, like Rezdôra co-owner David Switzer, implementing a reservation-only business model was also a matter of safety. “The more that you have planned out, the more precautions you can take,” he says. Having an exact idea of how many guests will be arriving — and when — helps restaurants avoid what Amanda Spina, the general manager of Williamsburg’s Michelin-starred Four Horsemen, calls “playing Tetris with tables all night” in order to accommodate walk-in group sizes. The more that staff can do ahead of time, the more that they can limit interactions with guests, the restaurateurs say.
Planning also allows for some elements of finer dining to gradually return to New York City restaurants, according to Four Horsemen chef Nick Curtola. Knowing the number of guests that the restaurant will be serving each night has allowed him to reintroduce some high-quality, perishable ingredients that weren’t right for takeout and delivery service. “Now that we have outdoor seating, we can bring back more dishes that are in line with the quality of the Four Horsemen, like certain cuts of fish and meat,” he says.
For all of the security that reservations allow, though, there are still factors that restaurateurs can’t prepare for: namely, summer weather in New York City. At Rezdôra, reservation times are regularly pushed back due to weather, while Four Horsemen has had entire days of service canceled due to forecasts of heavy rain.
“As a general manager, I’m also a meteorologist now,” says Amanda Spina of Four Horsemen. “I have three to four weather apps on my phone.”
At Olmsted, three of the first five days that the restaurant opened for outdoor dining were lost due to rain, Baxtrom says. “It’s not just losing those reservations. It’s also paying staff that came into work that day but didn’t receive any tips.”
Baxtrom says he reached a boiling point a little over a week ago, when he risked having to cancel an entire night of dinner reservations due to rain. “I decided to say fuck it and not cancel the reservations,” he says. “If people want to eat in the rain, they can.”
Baxtrom recalls that the night of service started off cloudy, but by 8 p.m. people were shielding their tables with personal umbrellas and eating barbecue in the pouring rain. “Not one person asked for the check,” he says. “In fact, people were adding more food onto their orders in the middle of a rain storm. It’s been months since they sat outside at a restaurant. They weren’t getting up.”
Despite some of these restaurants scheduling reservations two to four weeks in advance, though, restaurateurs underscored that restaurants and bars are still in a precarious financial situation. Owners say that they are at risk of closing and cannot afford to let go of their takeout and delivery services, despite many of them never having offered them before the pandemic.
In some cases, like at Four Horsemen, doing takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining has only allowed them to operate at 30 to 40 percent of their normal capacity, Spina says. Meanwhile, at Rezdora, an entire evening of outdoor dinner service accounts for roughly one full seating of the restaurant’s indoor dining room in normal times, according to Switzer.
Since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic four months ago, restaurant owners and managers have “flown by the seat of their pants” as Curtola put it, adapting their businesses and menus for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining, often with just a few day’s notice. Reservations are the latest chapter in the ongoing battle to stay afloat and, while not perfect, they have helped some restaurants return to their roots.
”People are excited we’re back,” Spina says. “It’s really warm and fuzzy. We’ve seen so many familiar faces, even if we had to recognize them only by their eyes and foreheads.”