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How to Get Into the Restaurant You Can’t Get Into

You can game the system, or just maintain your dignity and eat elsewhere

Folks are getting nervous about finding a way into restaurants these days — fears that are not without merit. Patrons are crowding their favorite restaurants after spending way too much time in their cramped apartments. Rewards credit cards are giving participating diners an advantage with line-cutting services. Counter or communal seats, traditionally reserved for walk-ins, are increasingly showing up on Resy, which can work against patrons who simply show up to a restaurant hungry. Even bars — those casual staples of metropolitan life around the world — are sometimes booking the bulk of their seats in advance.

So here’s the bad news: If your goal is to get into Lilia, a restaurant where even Jennifer Lawrence gets quoted multi-hour wait times, best of luck. But if you’re strategic about scoring reservations, and a little bit flexible, too, you generally shouldn’t have much trouble dining where you like. The spontaneous, walk-in dinner is not an endangered activity, especially if you play your cards right and have backup plans.

So here’s how to snag a coveted Resy, how to walk in, and how to eat elsewhere with dignity.

1. Find out exactly when restaurants release tables

Some restaurants are truly lottery-like affairs where bookings disappear within seconds. But at most hip establishments, you’ll often have a window of a few minutes to a few hours (or days!) to book your month-ahead table, so don’t be discouraged if you’re tardy signing on. And if everything looks fully reserved a short while after a big slot of tables is released on Resy or Tock, keep hitting refresh for a few minutes or longer; folks often back out of the booking when they’re confronted with the reality of a steep, nonrefundable fee.

Timing and scheduling is everything. Per Se releases reservations for an entire month the first day of the month before (so, booking for all of February goes live the first of January). Atera, by contrast, releases reservations almost every single night at midnight, for the corresponding date one month ahead. Wildly popular wine bar Claud does something similar, except bookings are released two weeks out at 9 a.m. and the team leaves space at the drink rail for walk-ins.

Take note of cancellation deadlines for refundable reservations — often a day or two ahead of the booking — as that’s when folks often change plans. Heck, I found a coveted Yoshino reservation on Tock for the following day just recently.

2. Resy “Notify” is your best friend

While you might be tempted to look for a restaurant with guaranteed availability on a given night, people always cancel, and restaurants sometimes release additional sets of tables closer to the date and time you wish to dine — sometimes even the day of. So if you’re not receiving “Notify” push alerts (which you can sign up for when you’re denied a reservation to a particular restaurant) you’re literally taking your name out of the drawing when the probability might actually favor your efforts — when there are fewer people who can compete for that reservation because they’ve already made other plans.

3. Check for cancellations when it’s blustery out

Be mindful to revisit a hard-to-get reservation if it’s raining, snowing, or hailing. You’d be surprised how many people back out of their dinner reservations simply because it’s drizzling.

4. Go as a walk-in

The walk-in life isn’t as easy as it used to be. Fewer restaurants offer detailed, meaningful policies for non-reservation holders on their websites or Resy pages — like, how many seats are really available for walk-ins? Half the dining room? Or a quarter of the communal table? When I call up to inquire about wait times, I often get voicemail, and a DM to an Instagram account is rarely answered the same night. And then I’ll show up to the restaurant to learn that half the bar is booked up in advance.

Still, I would rather hang around for 90 minutes instead of planning brunch three weeks out. And there’s often not much of a wait at all later at night, after 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the restaurant.

Bottom line: If you show up to a restaurant hungry and are polite to everyone at the host stand, like 99.9 percent of the time that venue will find a way to get you fed that night, because that’s what restaurants love to do: feed the people who are there. But if you have a bit of lead time, DM or drop by the restaurant to inquire about the actual walk-in policies.

5. Be prepared to have someone ask for your name and phone number as a walk-in

If you’ve dined out as a walk-in anytime recently, chances are a host has asked for your name or phone number before they escort you to the bar — or before they put your name on the waitlist. First things first: If this makes you uncomfortable — if you prefer to dine anonymously — let the host know as they’ll often honor your request.

However, giving a restaurant your info isn’t always bad. Maybe the wait for a bar seat is long tonight, but the restaurant moves you to the front of the line once hosts take down your number and realize you’ve dined at their sister spot five times in the past month. Or maybe you’re a regular at, say, Sid’s Squid House, but the bartender is new, and doesn’t remember you love the calamari pizza — a dish that’s about to run out. Letting a restaurant pull up your file can help out anywhere.

6. Consider a fancy credit card

Amex owns Resy, and certain rewards card members have access to reservations not available to the public, known as Global Access Dining. If that type of thing is important to you, consider spending a few extra bucks on that fancy card with a fee.

7. Be flexible about the date, or just go somewhere else

Superlative culture can make some of us think that we need that best-pick mattress or television, but here’s the thing: Dining at a restaurant isn’t about buying something that will impact your life for the next five years. It’s just dinner. There are tons of cool restaurants out there and unless you belong to a very particular social set, it is unlikely that all of your friends are eating at Torrisi tonight and that you, the loser, are not.

Restaurants aren’t like limited-run theater or one-night-only concerts with Paul McCartney. You’re not missing out if you go there tomorrow, next week, or next month. So if your venue of choice is truly booked up on a given night, maybe just go somewhere else? Instead of worrying about winning the reservations lottery at Yoshino, just book a bar seat a week out at Noz 17. Can’t get into Wenwen? Yes, it’s pretty good, but so is Win Son; you’ll wait your butt off, but you’ll get in as a walk-in.

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