Life is unpredictable, and human hearts are fickle. Minds, and moods, can change. The dinner plans you made a week ago suddenly don’t seem so doable.
This is the problem with restaurant reservations: You are supposed to be there. I take this commitment very, very seriously. It is overwhelming, my level of commitment to reservations. That is why I hate them! It is too much. I prefer to have a casual relationship with my dinner; I would like to just pop in somewhere, carelessly, breezily, when the mood strikes. A reservation? Not if I can help it! But that is only because I understand the gravity of the situation.
A dinner reservation is not a blood oath — not technically — but in my own mind, it is close. To click “Reserve” is to set the wheels of history in motion. The choice is made. The deed is done. The Resy has been rezzed. Doesn’t anybody understand commitment anymore?
They do not, apparently. No-shows have always been a nuisance in the restaurant industry, though now they seem to be on the rise. “We’re seeing a lot more,” reports Payal Sharma, owner of the cavernous East Village Indian café Baar Baar. “So let’s say we have 350, maybe 400 on the books; we’ll see anywhere from 50 to 75 no-shows,” Sharma explains. “Pre-COVID, it was more like 30 or 40.” At Modern Love in Williamsburg, chef and owner Isa Chandra Moskowitz has noticed an unfortunately similar trend: “We’ll have 60 reservations and have them confirm, and maybe 20 a night won’t show up.” Earlier this week, she says, an eight-person group confirmed and then evaporated.
Who are these people who feel so unencumbered by any sense of responsibility? We will never know. They did not show up. “It’s just like, Wow, not even a phone call,” marvels Roni Mazumdar, co-owner of Adda and Dhamaka, arguably the two most popular restaurants in New York City right now. When I looked, the next available reservation I could find at Dhamaka was at 5 p.m. in the middle of December. People are clamoring to eat there, this would seem to indicate, except when they suddenly are not.
Perhaps they are confused? I will explain. A restaurant is a reciprocal commitment: The restaurant staff will hold a table; you will show up. Unlike most other human interactions, which involve complicated feelings, reservations are refreshingly straightforward. As a customer, your only job is to show up to something you expressly asked to do.
“What do you think is going on?” I ask Mazumdar, but he isn’t sure either. “I’m still scratching my head. Not even a phone call — some of them wouldn’t even pick up the phone when we call! Why would somebody do that?” he asks back.
There are theories. “I feel like a lot of it is happening because people have been inside for a long time, and now they’ve gotten a chance to go out and so they want to explore everything,” suggests Sharma. New York City has always had its share of table hoarders, people who make reservations at multiple restaurants for the same night to keep their options open — maybe it’s more of that? Or maybe the answer is much easier: “General ennui,” Moskowitz sighs. “I understand life is chaotic, but I feel like nobody expects anything out of anyone lately.”
“People are just so bad at communication,” Sharma says, explaining the arduous job of confirming whether people plan to show up for brunch, which at Baar Baar involves filling out an emailed form. “You send them the form, and you have to stalk them, literally. ‘Hey, can you please send the form back?’ ‘Okay, if you don’t send the form back, the reservation is not confirmed.’ I don’t know what’s going on.”
The problem is not necessarily that this behavior is rude — dealing with rude and entitled members of the public is standard operating procedure for the restaurant industry. The problem is that if customers cannot be counted on to honor a dinner reservation of their own accord, restaurant owners will be forced to take more drastic measures. Do you remember the no-reservations heyday of 2010 to 2018 when restaurant owners tried to abandon the idea of bookings altogether? When every dinner plan involved first putting your name on a list and then finding a place to hang out for between 45 and 90 minutes before you were granted entry via text message? We do not need to return to those days.
We also do not need to get to a place where every restaurant is forced to adopt a practice that has become common among ultraexpensive restaurants: requiring a not insignificant deposit and possibly mandating that reservations are, with no exceptions, uncancelable. Nobody wants to be on the hook for $50 just because they’re planning to go eat some pasta with a friend three-to-five days in the future. What if you get hit by a bus?
One great promise of the Tocks and Resys of the world was that they were supposed to fix this problem, but it’s not clear whether they really have. (When I asked Resy if it had any data regarding an uptick in no-shows, it told me that “movement hasn’t been statistically substantial.”) And an actual solution, of course, is much clearer: Customers should just arrive when they say they will. The next thing that will happen for these customers is that they will get to eat a meal at a restaurant, which is typically an enjoyable experience.
A last-minute cancellation is not ideal, obviously, but any operator will tell you it’s better than a no-show, and things do, undeniably, come up. Even as the entire restaurant industry struggles back to firm footing — and encounters any number of new and surprising problems in the process — the people who work in this world nevertheless understand that emergencies and delays are unavoidable. Yet they are still willing to offer table reservations because it makes things easier for us. It’s so nice!
The primary joy of reservations is that the decision has been definitively made. There is nothing else to think about. It could be a perfect system. It is uncomplicated. It is true freedom from choice. Why deprive yourself of the satisfaction of simply showing up?