You can’t sit here (probably). Photo: Kate Dehler
Here is my confession: Anytime I want to eat at I Sodi, Rita Sodi’s narrow strip of a Tuscan restaurant on Christopher Street, I have to call my dad. Before it even opened in 2008, I told him he’d love it. I like to joke that my parents then stole the restaurant from me; the truth is everyone stole it from everyone else. Now nobody can get a table there, but my dad still can, as if endowed with magical powers, or maybe it’s just a certain kind of tireless and unjaded zeal.
I Sodi is small — a few dozen seats with a bar that takes up half the room — which contributes to the squeeze for reservations, but even if it were twice as big (like its sister restaurant, Via Carota), it’d be just as difficult to try chef Sodi’s pappardelle al limon. It’s set to move, and I predict that when it does it will remain a part of this city’s ever-rotating cadre of Impossible Tables, a group that includes Carbone and Don Angie (of course), Tatiana, the Polo Bar, and Claud. These restaurants may have Resy pages, but they won’t be much help. LOL, “notify me.”
There are people (a few of them like my dad) who have their ways of navigating the ins and outs of our city’s restaurant system For everyone else, an entire industry has sprung up around booking dinner, and even if the latest technological mechanisms are relatively new, the ultimate goal of securing access to the city’s most in-demand dining rooms dates back to the earliest days of New York’s restaurants.
Just look at Rao’s, established in 1896 and still the city’s most impenetrable dining room. Yes, it’s spawned a line of jarred sauces and boxed pastas that are in every grocery store in America — there have even been expansions into Vegas and L.A. — but anyone who wants to try their sausages and peppers in situ will need to know a regular who can grandfather them into this member’s only sanctuary.
The Colony sprung up in 1919 — first with ties to gangsters who gambled in its upstairs room before it became a clubhouse for the Park Avenue elite. When it closed in 1971, Truman Capote told the Times he’d never eat another plate of spaghetti again, and owner Gene Cavallero Jr. noted that customers seemed to be turning away from fine dining in favor of more-casual operations. “People don’t dine these days, they simply eat,” he told the paper. “But rather than turn The Colony into a hash house, I prefer to close.” (Sound familiar?)
Of course, by that time, any number of power rooms had opened: The ‘21’ club — where the riffraff couldn’t get past the bar — opened in 1930. The Four Seasons was unveiled in 1959, and André Soltner (considered by many to be America’s first celebrity chef) debuted Lutèce in 1961. Contrary to what many people think, anyone could get a booking at Elaine’s (1963–2011), Elaine Kaufman’s hangout for the city’s literary elite and other big wigs in the arts, but the zhlubs were treated accordingly.
Henri Soulé’s Le Pavillon became the template of high-grade French cuisine when it opened in 1941, as dozens of Gallic look-alikes emerged: La Caravelle (1960); Soulé’s own follow-up, La Côte Basque (1961–2004); La Grenouille (1962); and even more-modern successors such as Lespinasse (1991–2003), for example. In a cracking good Vanity Fair article from 2012, Bob Colacello spilled the Dom on many of these canteens of café society and revealed that Soulé was known as “the haughtiest host” and banished anyone he determined to be substandard to the back dining room (referred to as “Outer Hebrides” by Capote), his landlord and the head of Columbia Pictures among them. Meanwhile, at La Côte Basque (“Pavillon for the poor,” as Soulé dubbed it), Henriette Spalter (a.k.a. Madame Henriette), the Haughty One’s mistress and former keeper of the coats at Le Pavillon, ran the dining room and launched a campaign against women wearing pants; she kept paper skirts on hand and forced those who dared to show up in slacks to change into the flimsy waist wimples of shame. These were all in midtown, usually located near or in one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. As of 1975, it was reported there were 25 restaurants of this ilk, and at the height of their popularity, any of the above-mentioned spots was a hard score.
In terms of how the reservation game was played back then, everything depended on the discernment and preferences of the maître d’, who was often a proprietor. He (always a he) was the person who needed to know you, and he alone deemed guests worthy of a seat at one of his tables. Another way in might be the subtlest greasing of a palm, but it would be a faux pas to bribe the owner of the place; that would be for a hired hand. One had to know the difference and operate accordingly.
Things moved downtown when the McNally brothers — Keith and Brian, along with Keith’s future ex-wife Lynn Wagenknecht, opened the Odeon in 1980. I still remember my parents taking my younger brother and me downtown to eat there on Sunday nights, except the details that I remember aren’t what the grown-ups would: They’d recall seeing Andy Warhol or Dennis Hopper meandering in for dinner. For me, it’s the paper-covered tablecloths and the canisters of crayons plus a burger and fries. To this 6-year-old, an early Sunday evening at the Odeon was a fun, unexpected excursion, but at the same time no big deal, even if I did wonder why the wait to use the bathroom always seemed incredibly long.
Four years later, during the peak of Brian McNally’s powers, the evening roll call at Indochine on Lafayette Street could include David Bowie, Fran Lebowitz, and whichever supermodels were in town for the night. The plebs could only dream of what it must be like inside.
A decade later, that same crowd was hobnobbing with the West Coast moviemaking machers at Nobu. When it opened — and before it became a global chain — Gael Greene wrote that “the landfall in Manhattan of Nobu Matsuhisa was hailed as if were the Second Coming, if not the First.”
Elsewhere downtown, at Balthazar (est. 1997), Keith McNally took the “cafeteria” esprit of the Odeon and, with his background in set design, upgraded it to a shiny (but not too), flatteringly lit brasserie. The Brit was able to tap into an American fantasy of Parisian life right down to the genial insouciance. Le Balth’s relative casualness (as compared to its more “serious” uptown counterparts) might account for breakfast becoming the restaurant’s most important see-and-be-seen meal of the day. To maintain that understatedly snobbish communal aura, Keith McNally publicly listed a phone number for reservations even though everyone knew it wasn’t the number you needed if you had any hope of getting a good seat.
When Graydon Carter resuscitated the Waverly Inn in 2006, the publicly available phone number didn’t even work. Instead, rumors swirled that the only way to gain access was to call the chef’s personal cell or to perhaps reach out to Carter’s office at Vanity Fair, if you knew the name of his assistant. The food was as straightforward and Waspy as it gets — steamed artichokes, truffled macaroni — but nobody ever called it a “neighborhood” restaurant. Carter never even pretended to adopt the accessible, “walk right in, grab a simple meal” ethos.
For that, you had to walk ten minutes south to the Little Owl. It opened the same year as the new Waverly and, in doing so, perfected the faux-welcoming stance that defined an entire era of gastropub-adjacent dining: It presents as a humble, convivial spot serving unfussy, consistently good food for the neighbors who live around the corner while simultaneously hiring publicists and implementing a media strategy to be reviewed in the local publications and then written about in national outlets. It’s not that the food isn’t good. It’s just that you might feel let down if you’d spent months trying to get a reservation. The same could be said for the Grocery, which managed to lure even the most cynical Manhattanites to Carroll Gardens for its proto-locavore cooking, but its popularity never felt inorganic or cultivated. Instead, it aspired to be a true neighborhood destination, an approach that was undone when a bonkers Zagat rating brought in more customers than the dining room could handle.
Of course, there was the Spotted Pig as well, but because it professed to offer a “no reservations” policy, any determined, burger-craving diner could get in without too much trouble (as long as one doesn’t consider a two-hour wait to be “trouble”), even if the real VIPs never waited alongside them. The same can be said about Ssäm Bar in its heyday but not its follow-up, Momofuku Ko: Its original, Web 1.0 booking system was the onset of the now all-too-familiar feeling of setting an alarm to snag at seat at the exact minute they were released on the site. OpenTable had launched a decade earlier, but it simply replaced the phone with a website. Ko showed the world that it could turn demand into a game.
When Resy entered the virtual world in 2014, it made OpenTable look clunky and passé. The new platform was initially presented as a brokerage that allowed users to access otherwise unavailable reservations by paying for them ($50 for a prime-time table at Minetta Tavern — why not?). I remember being outraged by this idea, as if it were undermining a wholly democratic system, but of course it was never democratic at all.
Eventually, Resy did evolve away from its strict pay-to-pay model, though, with its Amex ownership, there is an upgraded Global Dining Access plan that lets members cut the virtual line for the most coveted time slots at the most coveted destinations.
Resy became the chosen table-booking platform for Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney when they opened Lilia in 2016. You couldn’t get a seat then, and you can barely get one now. Throw in the oldest restaurant here, Rao’s, as well as Carbone — opened in 2013 — and you’ve got something like a holy trinity of impossible Italian. Their crowds, neighborhoods, and philosophies differ, but the demand does not.
Have things really changed? We’re still dealing with predominantly white, male owners and chefs and a limited socioeconomic demographic; those same operators focus on a dining public that looks a lot like themselves and maintains a significant amount of spending power. Maybe a decade from now, we’ll be able to look back on newer, expanding restaurant groups like Hand Hospitality (when was the last time you stopped into Atomix?) or Unapologetic Foods (Dhamaka just overhauled its entire menu), which represent a welcome step toward diversity among the city’s most in-demand venues.