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Table at 7? L.A. begs to differ How full the restaurants weren’t

Times Staff Writer

MAYBE this has happened to you. It’s midafternoon on a Tuesday, you haven’t thought about what to do for dinner, and you decide to go out that night. You call a restaurant you’ve been wanting to check out (can’t be hard to get in on a Tuesday, right?) and ask for a reservation at 7.

“We can do 6:30 or 8:30,” the reservationist says. You take 6:30, though you really don’t want to eat that early. You arrive at the restaurant at 6:30, and the place is half-empty. You sit down and order. At 7, it’s still half-empty. By 8, it’s three-quarters empty.

So why, you ask yourself, couldn’t they take me at 7?

The reasons are hard to pin down, but there seems to be an epidemic of this kind of restaurant craziness in L.A. In the last 10 weeks, this particular reservation runaround has happened to me no fewer than six times. At a difficult time in the business, it’s hard to see how this can be a good thing for restaurateurs.

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On a recent Tuesday night, my boss and I wanted to check out Tanzore, a new Indian restaurant in Beverly Hills. We called at 6:20, asking for a 7:30 reservation. They could take us at 8, the reservationist said. We showed up at 7, curious to see a new restaurant so busy on a Tuesday. We were seated right away -- because the restaurant was nearly empty (we were the only party seated in the smaller of two dining rooms).

At One Sunset in West Hollywood, which opened in late June, I called on a Thursday afternoon, asking for a 7 o’clock reservation that night; I was offered 7:15. “OK,” I said, “but you really can’t squeeze us in at 7?”

“Eighty-five people are coming at 7,” the hostess said. I took the 7:15 but arrived at 6:45, just to get a gander at those 85 people cramming through the door. None of them had materialized by the time my guests arrived at 7. We were seated in the dining room, where only one other party was seated. In the half-hour between 6:45 and 7:15, two people came through the door into the dining room. Not 85.

Patric Kuh, restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine, reported this month in his review of Craft that in the course of six dinners there, he was never able to book a table later than 5:30, “only to spot plenty of free seats at 8.”

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According to industry insiders, business has been slow lately for L.A. restaurants. With so many new restaurants opening, competition for diners is fierce, they say. Menu prices have been rising and people aren’t spending as freely. Yet when diners call and try to reserve at a time when the restaurant clearly has plenty of tables, they’re told no.

With a little experience, you can even hear it coming on the phone: The reservationist asks, “What time were you hoping for?” and you know you’ve been had.

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A ‘dumb’ habit

“THEY want you to think they’re busy,” says Joan Luther, a prominent Los Angeles restaurant publicist and consultant. “It’s very silly and it’s very dumb, but I just think they’ve gotten into the habit.”

Difficulty getting the reservations she wants has driven one Los Angeles attorney to pretend she’s a Hollywood publicist when she calls to reserve. (She requested anonymity for fear she’d have trouble booking tables in the future.) “What’s happened to us numerous times throughout L.A.,” she says, “is we will call and try and get a reservation at 8, and they say, ‘No, we only have something at 6.’ I’ll call back as a publicist. I’ll say, ‘I’m “Tracy Rossman” at PMK and I’m publicist for so-and-so and we’d like a reservation.’ ” And it works, she says.

The problem seems to be peskiest if you want a table at 7, 7:30 or 8 -- that is, dinner time (for many of us, anyway).

On a recent Friday afternoon, I called West restaurant in the Angeleno hotel in Los Angeles, requesting a table for that night. “I can take you at 6, 6:30, 8:30 or 9,” the reservationist said, without even asking what time I’d like.

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“You can’t squeeze us in at 7 or 7:30?” I asked.

“Could you come at 7:15?,” she asked grudgingly. I said yes, feeling very lucky indeed to nab a precious table.

The dining room had only one other table seated when we arrived -- early, at 7. A few minutes later, that party left, and we were the only diners in the room until we finished dinner -- nearly two hours later.

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The official response

I called Luciano Sautto, Hotel Angeleno’s food and beverage director, for an explanation. First he told me the reservationist handled the call improperly. “That’s just wrong,” he said. “I have to investigate. We try to maximize the seating, but we want to accommodate anyone who calls. They’ve been instructed, if it’s very, very busy, you need to push the reservation later or forward.”

But the restaurant wasn’t very busy, I pointed out. It was empty. Could there be something else at work? “I love to do two seatings,” Sautto said, “so I can maximize the amount of people who come in.”

Now we were getting somewhere. If a restaurant can “turn the tables” -- that is, serve two parties at any given table in one evening -- it can most efficiently accommodate the greatest number of diners, maximizing “flow” and, therefore, profit. The idea is to take one big batch of diners from, say, 6:30 to 8 and another from 8:30 to 10.

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Chinois-on-Main, Wolfgang Puck’s 24-year-old restaurant in Santa Monica, long has had an official two-seating policy; don’t even try to make a reservation at 7:30 on a weekend -- it’s strictly 6:30 or earlier or 8:30 or later.

Chinois-on-Main’s policy doesn’t alienate many diners because the restaurant is upfront about it. Plus the restaurant is busy, so such a policy makes sense: Diners are happy to get in, happy to sit in a busy room.

“But it defeats the purpose,” Sautto himself pointed out, “when the restaurant isn’t busy.”

Perhaps that’s what was going on when I called Katsuya in Brentwood on a Sunday afternoon asking for a 7 o’clock reservation that night. I was offered 6:30 or 8:30, and took 6:30. My party of three was seated in the back room, which was half-empty. At 7 -- the time we had wanted -- there were three empty tables for four. At 7:55, only four of 10 tables were ccupied. Clearly they could have taken us at 7.

When the manager, Matt Erickson, stopped by our table as we were having dessert to ask whether we had enjoyed our dinner, I gestured to the half-empty room, told him about my conversation with the reservationist and asked why we weren’t accommodated at the time we preferred.

“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s Sunday night and we’re not busy -- you should have been able to have a table whenever you wanted it.”

Yet when asked what diners can do to avoid or overcome such treatment, neither Erickson nor any of the other managers interviewed came up with any practical suggestions. (Erickson suggested simply showing up at the time you want, whether or not you have a reservation, or insisting on speaking with a manager if you don’t get a time you like.)

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‘They’re only managers’

COMMON sense would dictate that restaurants are shooting themselves in the foot with such tactics -- after all, it’s very easy to just say “never mind” if you don’t get a reservation that works for you, or to think twice about returning to a restaurant where the reservation was a hassle and on top of it you wound up sitting in an empty room. It sets up a relationship between diner and restaurant that feels adversarial. It’s alienating at best; it’s certainly not hospitable.

“Most managers don’t care because they’re only managers,” says Thierry Perez, co-owner of Fraîche in Culver City, and a longtime front-of-the-house man. He chalks up the booking difficulty phenomenon to a citywide crisis in good restaurant management. “The big issue right now is that the managers in Los Angeles are, I’m sorry to say, not very good. They’re just thinking about themselves. It’s why most restaurants are closing after two years.

“They don’t care about the success of the restaurants. They want to have two easy seatings. And it makes no sense because it makes it more difficult for the kitchen, because then you have two big rushes.”

The two-seating tactic clearly wasn’t what was going on when I tried to make a 7 p.m. reservation for two at the Water Grill downtown on a recent Tuesday and had to settle for 7:15. We showed up at 7, and there were 20 empty tables in the main dining room.

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Balancing act

WHEN I called Barbara Marie, Water Grill’s general manager, she said that on that particular night, they had a couple of large parties that canceled. Then she explained that at high-caliber fine dining restaurants, it’s all about managing the flow of diners, so the kitchen doesn’t get overwhelmed and so the wait staff can deliver the best service. “We take so many reservations at 6, 6:15, 7, 7:15, 7:30,” she said. “For the kitchen, for the flow, for the service, the goal is for the guest to have the best experience possible.” So when a reservationist at Water Grill sees that a 7 o’clock slot is filled with 23 or 24 guests, he or she suggests 7:15, even though there are still tables empty at 7.

“That is a balancing act in this industry,” Marie said.

According to Brooke Brown, general manager at Katsuya, a good manager can look at the reservation books and anticipate what a given night will be like, depending on whether there’s a full crew on, or a couple of servers or cooks are out sick, and slip in an extra booking or two in a time slot -- or not -- accordingly. Managing the flow has become more problematic since reservation services such as Open Table have become prevalent (most L.A. restaurants use one of three such services; Katsuya uses one called Guest Bridge).

These services make handling reservations a no-brainer for the restaurant, but at the same time, they can also take that all-important human element out of the equation in a way that might exacerbate the problem from the diners’ point of view.

And the way some restaurants set up their Open Table or Guest Bridge systems make getting that 7 o’clock table even more difficult. That’s the case at Katsuya. “If the slots are booked,” Brown says, “to add another slot in there requires a manager’s approval.” If Guest Bridge says your desired slot is filled, the hostess cannot add your party of two into that slot, even if she sees that no one has reservations at 7:15 or 7:30 or 7:45, without her running and getting a manager. (Not all restaurants set up their systems to require that.) “The phone rings nonstop here,” Brown says, so the hostess isn’t likely to take the time to get the approval, unless the caller is “super persistent.”

Sometimes being a good manager means being flexible. Bella Lantsman, general manager at Chinois-on-Main, has adapted to slower business on weekdays (which she attributes to increasing traffic problems in the last couple years) by allowing diners to reserve outside of Chinois’ two seating windows. “So if someone calls,” she says, “not on a weekend, and says, ‘We want 7,’ and we have it, we give it to them.”

But that kind of thinking seems harder and harder to come by lately.

“Some restaurants panic or stress out and they don’t think too much,” Fraîche’s Perez says. “They don’t want to work very hard.”

Could that have been what was going on late Saturday night when a friend and I stopped by the Hungry Cat in Hollywood after a Hollywood Bowl concert, with no reservation? It was about 11:15, and I could see six open tables for two. The hostess told us they were waiting for some reservations to show up, and we’d have to wait a few minutes.

Two guys came, no reservation, and were seated right away. Two women came and were seated.

“Did those women have a reservation?” I asked. Yes, they did. “And the two guys?”

“No,” said the hostess, “but they were here before you.” Huh? I was waiting for my table when they came.

“Those reservations you’re waiting for,” I said, “they’re for 11:15? 11:30?”

“Both,” she said, clearly exasperated. “Do you want me to seat you now?”

Yes, I did.

This was all very strange because as might be expected, the wait staff and kitchen seemed to be in a hurry to finish up and go home, and those other diners with reservations never materialized.

On Monday, I called the Hungry Cat’s general manager, Tim Staehling, to get his take on what happened.

“There’s no explanation for that,” Staehling said. “I can’t really defend that.”

And I’m left baffled.

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brenner@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Desperate times?

It seems as though Los Angeles is suffering a bad case of reservations runaround. Whether it’s a coveted 8 o’clock table at a hot new spot on a Saturday night or a 7 o’clock table on a Tuesday at a spot where the in-crowd has gone elsewhere, it’s harder than it should be to get the reservation you want. So what strategies do those wielders of table power -- restaurant managers -- suggest? Not much. Or not much that’s practical, anyway.

Here’s what they, and others, had to offer.

* Just show up at the time you want. That’s what Katsuya manager Matt Erickson suggested. Of course, that’s risky; maybe they are really booked. And if you’re meeting friends from across town, you’re all taking a chance; everyone might go hungry.

* Insist on speaking with a manager. It’s pushy, it’s offensive, but it’s another of Erickson’s suggestions, and in many cases it’ll probably work.

* Pretend you’re a Hollywood publicist. That’s what one Los Angeles attorney says she has resorted to, and she says it works.

* Reserve several days in advance. D’oh. Two managers actually suggested this. But what difference does it make if the restaurant’s not even busy?

* Ingratiate yourself with the maitre d’ or manager. If you’re a regular and tip well, you might be able to book a table with him or her. Some have cards printed with a direct number.

* Ask for a time you don’t want. Then maybe you’ll be offered a time you do want.

-- Leslie Brenner


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