Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

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Getting a reservation these days can be complicated. Call The Dabney,for example, and you’ll hear a recording that may require you to take notes on your Surface Pro 4.

“We accept reservations two weeks in advance at noon on our website and over the phone,” the recording says. “The largest party we are able to accommodate is group of six guests. If your preferred reservation is unavailable, please schedule a cancellation alert by using the notify me function provided on our website by our reservation system, RESY. Please note, we do not take reservation requests via email, voicemail, or social media. Non-reservable seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis at our bar, bar tables, and courtyard. We seat complete parties in the order in which they arrive. Future reservations can be made online daily between 12 noon and 5 p.m.”

While some of this language is pretty conventional, what’s not is that the restaurant only takes reservations two weeks at a time. In a city of Type A planners who schedule everything from meetings to therapy to sex, some diners are frustrated they can’t book tables well in advance.

During its first six months in business, The Dabney used a more traditional 30-day reservation period. General manager and co-owner Alex Zink says they would always get a big bump of reservations, but over the course of the month they’d see a “tremendous amount” of cancellations.

“I understand, folks jump on and see a reservation, but over 30 days plans change, and the large amount of cancellations meant we were seeing a decrease in guests as a result,” Zink says.

In response, the Michelin-starred restaurant shortened the window to two weeks. “It’s more diplomatic in a sense,” Zink says. “We feel bad for guests who know when they’re coming and want to lock it down,” he concedes. “Two weeks is unorthodox, but we just wanted something very fair.” They’re looking to level the playing field for those who don’t or can’t plan in advance.

Fortunately, The Dabney made the switch from OpenTable to RESY, which allows diners who strike out to set up a notification should a table become available. “We’ll get notifications on our system that a reservation cancelled for 6 p.m., and 30 seconds later we have a new one because someone on the list got a notification,” Zink explains. 

The Ren Hen, which also uses RESY, accepts bookings a month at a time. Partner Michael O’Malley says the decision was about fighting the attrition rate of longstanding reservations that tend to drop off (no shows, he says, are worse than cancellations). “It can get challenging for people looking to plan graduations and other special occasions, but if you hold to your policy, at least you’re being fair,” he says. “Everyone has the same crack at getting that slot.”

Some restaurants that take reservations well into the future use the strategy of collecting a credit card deposit to protect themselves from last-minute cancellations and no shows, but O’Malley isn’t interested in creating barriers to entry. “When we were opening, the goal was to eliminate hurdles,” he says. “If [requiring a credit card] eventually becomes something that makes people not want to go, then why do it?” he asks. Requiring a deposit also wouldn’t jive well with The Red Hen’s casual, neighborhood vibe that was created to welcome walk-in diners. 

From the restaurant’s perspective, there are other advantages to shortening reservation calendars. “We take reservations up to 28 days in advance to give ourselves the flexibility to manage special events or closings,” says Bill Jensen, co-owner of Tail Up Goat. He says in the Michelin-starred restaurant, which hasn’t even been open a year, has hosted a rehearsal dinner, a fundraiser for Miriam’s Kitchen, and an event with a Sicilian winemaker. They’ve even closed the restaurant to celebrate a staff member’s wedding. “It would simply be impossible for us to do any of that if we already had reservations booked.” 

Subtly, Jensen introduces the notion that at least Tail Up Goat accepts reservations at a time when snaking lines are in vogue. “Taking reservations allows us to be more accessible to diners who otherwise wouldn’t be able or wouldn’t want to wait in line.”