Paying a Premium for the Corner Table

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:09

    New apps hope to transform the way we make dinner reservations - but not all are on board

    Margaret Walker loves French food and impeccable service.

    The psychotherapist, Midtown East resident and self-professed Manhattan foodie has dined at some of the hottest-and priciest-restaurants in the city, including Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and Upper East Side restaurant Daniel.

    She hopes to land a table at Columbus Circle restaurant Per Se before year's end.

    "That's a really tough reservation to get," Walker said. "You literally have to calculate the days, and then call on the day they open up reservations for the day you want to go. But I know these things because I'm insane about these things."

    In other words, Margaret Walker is not your average diner. And for many restaurant-goers in the city, a primetime table at Per Se may seem as elusive as an open cab during the 4 p.m. shift change.

    But, as Uber did for ground transportation, a batch of new mobile applications are hoping to make sought-after restaurant reservations more easily and quickly available. New app Resy, which launched in June, is partnering with restaurants to sell last minute reservations at exclusive restaurants. And Resy's not alone in the space: Killer Rezzy offers a similar service, and Zurvu sells reservations for a $5 'convenience fee' per head.

    Ben Leventhal, creator of dining news site Eater, founded Resy with entrepreneur and Uber investor Gary Vaynerchuk. Resy, Leventhal said, is designed to advance a dusty reservation system dominated by last-minute phone calls, back and forth emails to reservationists, and OpenTable, which offers a consumer-friendly interface, but not last-minute access, and charges restaurants for the service. Resy shares the revenue for each reservation with the restaurants.

    "The most important thing that we're trying to fix is the user experience of making restaurant reservations," said Leventhal. "Whether you're paying some premium for the table or not, the thing that's broken is, you should be able to get the table that you want, when you want it. And it should be very fast on your phone to do that."

    Among Resy's partners is Greenwich Avenue restaurant Rosemary's, which doesn't take reservations, making the typical wait a few hours. But diners can cut that step and purchase a table on Resy; a table for two at Rosemary's on a Friday night is $10 and is one of the cheaper reservations on the app (though so far, nothing exceeds $50).

    "If we execute, then you're not going to be thinking about Resy as the place you go to pay for a reservation," said Leventhal. "You're just going to think about Resy as the place you go for a reservation."

    Opinions on the concept are mixed. Some, including Resy's founders, consider it egalitarian. Alex Stupak, chef and owner of Empellón Taqueria, one of Resy's partner restaurants, told the New York Times that reservation fees "discourage a no-show."

    Others find it alienating and even more exclusionary. Max Falkowitz, an editor at national food blog Serious Eats, compares apps like Resy to fast passes at amusement parks that cost more than general admission and allow guests to jump the lines. He worries that reservation apps encourage dining conformity and reinforce the idea that diners should seek "novelty" experiences instead of becoming regulars at neighborhood spots that might serve great food with fewer crowds.

    "There's a very substantial, important diversity to restaurant culture," said Falkowitz, who lives in Queens and dines out frequently, but at restaurants that aren't as expensive or exclusive as those found on Resy and other apps. "In directing people to a very small subset of certain restaurants, it contributes to the sense that we should all go to the same places."

    Storied restaurateur Pino Luongo, who was one of the original owners of Il Cantinori on East 10th Street, went on to build an Italian fine-dining empire and now only operates Morso on East 59th Street near Sutton Place. He remembers customers sneaking cash into a maître d's hand in hopes of securing a coveted table on a Saturday night.

    "Our industry has evolved," said Luongo of the new apps. "And I don't have anything against it. It's an open market and we are all competing for customers all the time-at peak hours and not peak hours-and if there is a company that provides a service to have 100 percent occupancy during the night, so be it. I welcome it."

    About 70 percent of reservations at Morso are booked through OpenTable, Luongo said, and a reservation app wouldn't make sense for his local, regular customers. And Luongo, who has seen his own restaurants shutter, recognizes a danger in charging for reservations that won't always remain hot commodities.

    "Trendiness doesn't last forever," he said.

    Walker secures most of her evasive reservations on OpenTable. She hasn't paid for a reservation yet, but isn't against trying Resy.

    "This is catered to a very specific individual, and it's not really a large group," she said. "The group of people who want to get in these restaurants but don't know how to navigate the reservations, it's very small."

    But Leventhal predicts a broader customer base. While Resy has about 20 restaurant partners in New York, including downtown spots Minetta Tavern and Balthazar, and Upper East Side restaurant Sant Ambroeus, he's in ongoing dialogues with several restaurants in the city, and expects to grow Resy's partner list to 50 restaurants before 2015. During a recent meeting, a well-known restaurateur (who Leventhal declined to name) compared the conversation to the ones he had with OpenTable in 1999.

    "I think that's the broad sentiment," said Leventhal, who is looking at Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas as the next markets for the app. "In terms of the user experience, Resy is going to be the way the world goes. If Resy wins or another company wins, this notion of reservations will exist in 12 months, [...] and in 24 months, if you're not on Resy as a restaurant, your customers are going to want to know why."

    The prospect of such ubiquity worries Falkowitz, who thinks of restaurants as social institutions. Unlike hailing a cab, he said, hospitality is a "vital part" of a restaurant meal, and diners want to feel cared for, not squeezed.

    "As a diner, I'm going to feel really insulted if I have to pay to get in the door," said Falkowitz. "If these things become a new standard, it raises the cost and anxiety of dining in the city, and it's a city that's full of high cost and transaction fees and a lot of anxiety already."

    As the platform grows, and with reservation costs based on demand, Leventhal said that, in the future, some reservations might be free, or sold at the $2 mark. And for diners who don't want to pay, reservations can still be made the old-fashioned way, at no cost.

    For Walker, that's crucial.

    "As long as all the options remain available, people won't freak out," said Walker, a lifelong New Yorker. "This is a city where you can be a millionaire and still not get into the most exclusive clubs. You don't have to be rich to be the guy who can get past the velvet rope. If we're creating a world where you do have to have the cash to get past the velvet rope, people will be pissed."