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Would You Pay More for Dining in Prime Time?

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Clams and chorizo at Bliss.

Some high-end restaurants in New York city are so popular that they’ve begun charging patrons more if they want reservations during prime hours, notably 7 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and for preferred seating, the New York Times reported recently.

In a way, it’s a reserve of early bird specials that reward patrons for dining earlier in the evening by giving them a break on the price of their meal.

But would the idea go over in SA? Would people be willing to pay more because they wanted to dine at the most congested time? The question was put to several key players on the dining scene. Here’s what they had to say:

Mark Bliss
Chef/owner, Bliss
926 S. Presa St.

Hmm, a premium price for premium times … I think some clientele would not have an issue, but it does seem a bit exclusive and would not allow customers on a budget to dine at premium times, especially for special events like anniversaries, birthdays, etc. We always wanted Bliss to be accessible to everyone, and if they book a week out ahead of time, they are able to secure prime times, usually. It seems that with “preferred seating” one would be setting one up for no-show credit card charges, last-minute reservations and impatience in having to wait for a table on very busy nights. We already have that exclusivity in place with our chef’s table. -Mark

Stefan Bowers
Chef, Feast
1024 S. Alamo St.

At Feast we only do reservations for tables of six or more and that’s simply because we needed to be somewhat prepared for large groups. But I can answer this question with certainty because I answer the phones during the day (we don’t have a host during the day and I don’t like people going to voicemail). The fact is that 95 percent of everyone who calls and wants a table, especially on a Friday/Saturday night, wants it at 7:30. It’s a premium time, and everyone wants it. I’ll tell the guest on the phone that 7:30-8:30 is booked and lose their business because of the trillion other options available. I suppose in New York it’s a way of recovering some of the losses of “turnaway” tables. Though, my personal belief is that it’s not good business. The party calling far enough ahead to secure a table and then being penalized for it just doesn’t make sense to me. This is exactly, on a deep level, why we became an open seating restaurant, first come-first serve (almost — we’re just too small to deal with a walk-in 14, 16 or 20 top).

The Jack Cheese Mac at Feast.

What’s happening nowadays in the contemporary restaurant scene is fascinating to me. Restaurants are completely evolving. They’re becoming far more unconventional and much more confident in calling their own shots. Big name or just solid local chefs with a national reputation (Carlo Mirarchi, David Chang, for example) are rewriting the rule books. We’re ALL aware of the fatality rate of restaurants, so I think younger chefs are taking a more defensive and protective role and saying something to the effect of “Well, I could be out of business in less than five years, so I’m going to do things my way and I’m also not going to let the guests take advantage of me OR my restaurant.” Yet, I feel this is an unstopable measure in big cities. Though, I don’t see SA doing this for another 3-5 years at the minimum.

Altogether, I don’t agree with this trend. It doesn’t feel right poking someone with a reservation time “penalty ticket” (even though there’s a part of me that can see how it might possibly eliminate the entitled guest or it might cause the more frugal guest to slide up or down a time slot), but unfortunately I think what it’s going to do, most of all, is just irritate the guest from the begining and start a VERY dangerous process of stacking the deck against the restaurant that applies it.

To put it plainly, it’s going to cheapen the guest/restaurant relationship from the start. The romance immediately dies a little between the two parties because it becomes about the money before the two parties can even get to the sex, uh, food/experience. It’s important to never make the guest feel cheap. If the guest feels cheap then the restaurant is cheap.

Jason Dady
Chef/owner, Jason Dady Restaurants,
including Bin 555 and Tre Trattoria

Is Jason Dady’s outrageous Nutella x 3 even more precious if you can order it at the time you prefer?

In my dream world, that would be perfect. It makes sense in many other entertainment industries: premium tickets for premium pricing. Down time results in lower pricing in movie theaters, Broadway shows, etc.

I think if they “band” together, it could work, but it’s only as strong as its weakest link. Look at Next and Alinea (in Chicago) selling tickets, and it’s worked great for them.

It would never, ever go over in SA, because no one has a stronghold enough on the market to garner that type of demand. But as a diner, I would certainly not mind paying a premium price for a premium time, if that’s what I wanted. You get what you pay for.

Robert Rodriguez,
General Manager, NAO at the CIA
312 Pearl Parkway

Interesting. Seems like an effort to make the time less popular. Can’t imagine they would be making much money with it. Don’t think it would go over very well here. In San Antonio, everyone wants to come in between 6 and 8 … sometimes it’s difficult to fill reservations in advance for earlier or later than that, if they plan ahead at all.

Now, it’s your turn: Would you be willing to pay more for dinner at a special restaurant if you wanted to go at a heavily trafficked time? Post your answers below.

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4 Responses to “Would You Pay More for Dining in Prime Time?”

  1. Cecil Flentge says:

    If a restaurant needs to make more money, they should charge more/be open more/be more efficient to ‘turn tables’. If they are just avoiding telling a customer that they are booked – they are in the wrong line of work. If they are just trying to extort money because of a perceived ‘short supply-high demand’ for something like the time of the evening – that makes me feel they don’t have the quality service and innovation to bring people in at a ‘less desired’ time. If you get too many reservations at a particular time – then it tells you to make other times more attractive with early bird and night owl specials, better take home options, something special ‘after nine PM’. Otherwise it smacks of a adversarial relationship with the customer – probably a good reason that they ‘may not be here in five years’.
    In the business they talk of ‘training your customer’ and that is what you need to do here. Make them feel really lucky to be in your establishment whenever they are there and you will not have the problem.

    • John Griffin says:

      Excellent points. Also, if you are top heavy during prime times, it could help to make the less busy times more attractive. Some places offer wine discounts, others offer prix-fixe specials to fill seats.

  2. Traci Maricle says:

    I like the say Stefan thinks. Sounds like he really cares about his patrons’ experiences.