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A wood paneled room is filled with records and small tables with black barstools.
Eavesdrop opened earlier this year with majority-reservation seating and has since scaled back that decision, albeit slightly.
Peter Fisher/Eavesdrop

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Spontaneity Is Officially Dead at New York’s Hottest Bars

For better and worse, reservation culture has come for bars

Tiff Baira is a self-proclaimed “Manhattan dating tour guide” known for giving nightlife recommendations on TikTok. Over the past two years, Baira began to notice that a flurry of new bars opening across the city accepted or required reservations. “It used to be that reservations were for formal dinners or fancy cocktail bars,” Baira says. “However, I’ve seen the transition to casual places opening for reservations, too.”

Over the past year or so, cocktail bars like El Pingüino, Bandits, Eavesdrop, Temperance, the Nines, and Temple Bar have all launched on Resy (“You really, really won’t get into the new Temple Bar without a reservation,” Grub Street wrote). Showing up to a hot new bar with a crew at 8:30 on a Friday night without a reservation? Don’t even bother. Put more simply, the spontaneity and fun of grabbing a drink on the whim is largely becoming a thing of the past.

Baira doesn’t mind the trend. “A big thing for my followers is that you want to go out but there are too many people there, or people don’t know if they’ll get in,” she says. As the technology for reservations has evolved, it has granted some “assuredness” for a night out, especially one with multiple stops.

“New York will always be a ‘I-know-a-guy’ place, but now ‘knowing a guy’ is just having the technology to get in,” Baira says, adding that she feels the reservations trend makes nightlife a bit more accessible, even if there will always be people trying to game the system.

When it comes to dating, Baira feels that reservations generally work in favor of a couple. For one, people are less likely to back out last minute. They don’t have to risk running out of conversation topics by the time they’re seated. Even worse, the person seeking some liquid courage could be out of luck for hours before finding a seat.

While reservations are by no means unique to the current bar scene — cocktail bars like speakeasy PDT have long operated with a reservation system — a growing number of new spots are swiftly making reservations the standard, solidified by digital booking platforms like Resy.

And it’s not just new spots, either. In summer 2020, Aisa Shelley started taking reservations at his Chinatown cocktail den Mr. Fong’s for contact tracing — although he’s since scrapped it to bring back the bar’s more casual, lively vibe. At Shelley’s Tribeca bar Primo’s, however, he felt that adding reservations would help rebrand it as more of a seated cocktail lounge, rather than a party spot. Since adding reservations in February 2022, Shelley says Primo’s has seen an uptick in sales, as more business has been drummed up midweek during happy hour.

Across the hospitality industry, it’s been reported that reservations have been more difficult to score than ever. Resy told the Wall Street Journal that April 2022 was the booking platform’s busiest month on record since launching, despite summer usually being a spike for restaurant reservations. Both Resy and its main competitor OpenTable told Eater they did not have data on how many new bars had signed up for their respective services.

Still, bar owners and customers are noticing the difference. When El Pingüino opened in December of last year, owner Nick Padilla said his bar didn’t offer reservations for customers stopping by for Negronis, martinis, and seafood towers. He claims requests from customers — via DMs, phone, and in-person — factored into his team’s decision to convert all inside tables to reservation-only while keeping bar seats and the recently added outside tables open for walk-ins only. According to Padilla, a reservation allows “guests to relax and not feel rushed,” and they may even spend more money on food.

It also means that guests may never get a table inside serendipitously.

Gino Luigi/Eavesdrop

Eavesdrop, which opened in Greenpoint back in March, launched as a cocktail bar that was entirely bookable on Resy. Eavesdrop wasn’t “reservation-only” in that they didn’t allow walk-ins, but “effectively it was impossible to get in without a reservation,” co-owner Dan Wissinger told Eater via email.

“We were having to tell people at 5 p.m. that we were committed for the whole night, and that sucks,” adds Max Dowaliby, another owner. After hearing feedback from customers, in April, the bar began saving some but, not all, of its bar stools for walk-ins. Dowaliby believes Eavesdrop could actually increase revenue by having more space for walk-ins to mitigate people who are late or cancel last minute.

At both El Pingüino and Eavesdrop, walk-in availability accounts for around 50 percent of the seating. A reservation is even more of a premium at other bars in town. Adam Fulton, an owner behind Bandits, says via email that around 70 percent of the 62 seats are reservable.

The ’70s-themed West Village bar ends up with around 150 reservations on the books before it even opens up on the weekend, Fulton adds. By the end of a weekend night, it hosts around 250 to 300 seated guests — not including the walk-in bar — with nearly just as many people regularly joining Resy notify.

For patrons frustrated by the increasing number of bars taking reservations, going alone or stopping by at an off-hour is the best strategy, says Baira. At El Pingüino, Padilla says customers can more likely walk in on the later side while Eavesdrop sees a lull around 5 p.m. when the doors open.

Of course, the reservation frenzy only pertains to a particular subset of bars. Dives may always be friendly for dropping by, but as the pandemic has shown, the on-the-whim freedom that makes such spots popular also makes them vulnerable to closure.

No matter how New Yorkers feel about this new trend of going out, reservations don’t appear to be fading away. At Primo’s, Shelley says, “The pandemic helped solidify our interest in using a reservation system in the long run.”

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