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New D.C. Restaurants Nix The Reservations

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Customers have waited up to three hours for a table at 14th Street NW newcomer Pearl Dive.
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Customers have waited up to three hours for a table at 14th Street NW newcomer Pearl Dive.

Back in 1999, D.C.-raised playwright Becky Mode premiered a one-man show called Fully Committed. Mode used to work in the restaurant business, where she'd hear insiders describe a booked-up eatery as "fully committed." So her play follows the harried hijinks of an overworked reservationist named Sam, who mans the phones at an exclusive French brasserie in New York.

Washington may not be chock-a-block with posh, exclusive French eateries, but it has been pretty typical for the city's mid-to-upper-range restaurants to have their own "Sam" handling reservations.

Yet in recent years, a number of D.C.'s newer eateries don't necessarily need a "Sam."

Take Little Serow, on 17th Street near Dupont Circle. As Birch and Barley's general manager, Erik Bergman, points out, the wildly popular, and wildly tiny, Thai restaurant doesn't take reservations at all.

"I've waited two hours for a table," Bergman says. "But I thoroughly think that it's worth every second of wait!"

Amy McKeever, editor of the restaurant blog, Eater D.C., has written extensively about another place that doesn't tout reservations: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street Northwest.

"When Pearl Dive first opened, their waits were around three hours," McKeever says. "Now they can be around two hours on a Saturday night."

But during a recent interview with Pearl Dive's general manager Tyes Zolman, McKeever discovered a way to nix the wait entirely: the "secret" chef's table.

"When I was interviewing [Zolman] she said there was no wait to get into the chef's table; they do take reservations for it," McKeever says. "And so I was thinking, even at the time, 'the second I write about this, I wonder if everybody's going to snap up those chef's table's reservations, because I would!'"

The catch is, there are only four of these reservations, and they're only available between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m., which seems to be a magic time for some other spots on 14th Street.

Cork Wine Bar, just up the street from Studio Theater, offers pre-theater reservations between 5:30 and 6:30. Estadio takes reservations at 5:00, 5:30 and 6:00.

And across town, in the H street corridor, you'll find the same kind of thing at gastropub Granville Moore's, and at Toki Underground, the ramen shop that chef Erik Bruner-Yang opened to much buzz and fanfare last April.

When Toki first opened, "we were first-come first-served, and we're still predominantly a first-come first-served restaurant," Bruner-Yang says. "We only do reservations for the first turn, Monday through Friday from 5 to 6."

And actually, he adds, these early-bird reservations are pretty practical in terms of expanding clientele.

"The people that do make the reservations during the weekdays have been a lot more families," says Bruner-Yang. "People that normally wouldn't come because they're afraid of the wait. And I think it just shows that we're considerate to other people's needs, but at the same time we have to balance, like, what the customers want with the bottom line."

Because when you're as small as Toki Underground is (just 23 seats), and you charge a mere $10 for a bowl of ramen, you must rely on constant customer turnover.

"And if we were to expand reservations, we would definitely have to raise prices because we wouldn't sell as many bowls," Bruner-Yang explains.

The other potential down side of reservations, says Bergman "is someone promising that they're going to come in, and increasingly they're not. People are increasingly not showing up for their reservations."

And that can be frustrating for restaurants, since they use reservations to plan for a specific number of customers and staff each day.

On the other hand, the same no-show can be fantastic for customers. Because as Eater D.C.'s McKeever admits, waiting two or three hours for a table can be a drag. But she suspects these long waits might be the wave of the future as D.C.'s dining scene explodes.

"I haven't noticed an end point," she says. "You would think that with all these buzzy openings, and the more exciting restaurants that are out there, the easier you might be able to get into the ones that used to be buzzy. But it really does not seem to be that way.

"There is just so much demand to get into these restaurants, and going out to dinner is, even more so now, a trendy thing to do."


[Music: "Suppertime" by Original Broadway Cast from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown]

Photos: D.C. Restaurants

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