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Fat Guy

Reservations and Regulars at Momos and

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Thanks for starting this topic, Mitch. I think I'd like to add to it with an excerpt from the "How to Dine" class from the eGCI, which was based on my book, Turning the Tables.

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Most every restaurant is really two: the one the public eats at, and the one where the regulars dine. Being a regular affects every aspect of the dining experience, from getting that tough-to-book table on a busy Saturday night, to getting the waitstaff's best service, to getting special off-menu dishes and off-list wines. The best restaurant isn't the one with the highest Zagat rating, the most stars from the local paper, or that cute celebrity chef. It's the one where you’re a regular.

This news can be discouraging to some, but it needn't be to you: by being a proactive and knowledgeable customer, you can start getting treated like a regular on your very first visit. A special relationship with a restaurant is one of life's great pleasures, and such a relationship can be far easier and quicker to establish than many people think. You don't need to be wealthy, a celebrity, or great-looking to be a regular. I’m none of the three, and I do pretty well in restaurants. And while you can't exactly become a regular in a single visit, you can make a lot of progress in that direction.

The benefits of being a regular will, of course, increase with each visit to a restaurant. Although each individual meal at a top restaurant should be excellent, most seasoned veteran diners take the long view. To them, eating a first meal at a restaurant is like a first date: it's a preview that helps you decide if you're going to want a second date. Most every restaurant, like every dating partner, keeps a little something in reserve for subsequent encounters. The first meal won't expose you to the full range of an establishment's capabilities, but it will give you a taste. On the later visits, things can get even more interesting.

But you can't make those repeat visits if you're constantly eating at the latest trendy place. Becoming a regular requires focus, whereas the relentless pursuit of the new and the different cuts directly against depth of enjoyment at just a few well-chosen places. There are more than six thousand restaurants in Chicago, and New York has something in the neighborhood of twenty-thousand; given how many close and open each week, any large city has too many to visit in a lifetime. Since you'll never visit them all, don't try. Instead, zero in on a handful of restaurants to satisfy your various dining needs -- the special-occasion place, the business-lunch place, the neighborhood place where you go for a quick bite -- and cultivate the heck out of your relationship with the staff at each one. You'll soon find you don't often get the urge to eat anywhere else, and that new restaurants have to fight to get onto your schedule instead of vice versa.

Before and during your first visit, do a little research. Every level of restaurant in every city has both an official and an unofficial dress code. The official dress code tells you the minimum ("no jeans, no sneakers" or "jackets required for gentlemen"), but what you want to know is the unofficial code: what are people really going to be wearing? The way to find out is to call ahead and ask. Other questions -- there are no stupid ones -- should be asked on the spot, while dining. Those in the service profession usually love to share their knowledge with newcomers to their restaurant or to fine dining in general. Whether you want to know what a funny-shaped utensil is for or what the best dish on the menu is, just look your server in the eye and ask, "Can you tell me about this?" The first time my wife (then-girlfriend) and I dined at Bouley in New York City, we didn’t know what a sauce spoon was. When we asked, the waiter took us under his wing -- and that's exactly where you want to be.

Most good restaurants' waitstaffs will recognize you after two or three visits (and certainly the restaurant's reservations computer will, assuming you use the same name and phone number each time). In that sense, anybody who visits a restaurant often enough eventually becomes a regular by default. But there are levels of regulars, and if you're going to visit the restaurant anyway, you may as well attain the highest, super-VIP level by being proactive. Learn the name of your waiter and the maitre d' or manager, and, more importantly, make certain they learn yours. The easiest way to accomplish this: "I really enjoyed my meal today. My name is Steven Shaw." If you aren’t answered with, "Thank you, Mr. Shaw, my name is François, please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you in the future," then there’s something wrong with you, or with the restaurant. (Of course you should use your name, not mine. There are still a few places out there that are annoyed with me for giving them bad reviews.)

A restaurant is a business, but a relationship with a restaurant is not just about money. Especially when dealing with waitstaff, the human element can often eclipse financial concerns. Sure, money is important to people in the restaurant business, just as it's important to lawyers. But like the law, the restaurant business is a service business, and all lawyers know that there are good clients and bad clients, and that you can have bad billionaire clients and great penniless clients. When cultivating a relationship with a restaurant's service staff, being nice often counts at least as much as callously throwing money around. The use of "please" and "thank you," and general acknowledgment of your waiter as a fellow human being, will immeasurably improve your stock.

And there's something that counts as much as or more than being nice: being interested. Any chef or waiter can tell you how disheartening it is to work so hard to create the best possible food and service experience, and then to dish it out to a mostly uncaring clientele that chose the restaurant for the scene, not the food. If you can distinguish yourself as someone who really cares about the restaurant's work, you will be everybody's favorite customer. The quickest approach? Again, ask questions, which indicates interest. Interest is one of the highest compliments you can pay. Of course, if you do choose to distribute a little extra cash, a twenty-dollar bill and a discreet "thank you" never hurts.

Do not, however, make the egregious mistake of faking it. Don't try to be someone you're not in order to impress a restaurant's staff. Aside from being undignified, this is doomed to failure. Every experienced waiter is a part-time amateur psychoanalyst and can spot a poseur clear across a crowded dining room. It's not necessary to try to appear learned about wine and food, or to appear absurdly enthusiastic. You'll get a lot further by deferring to the staff's expertise than you will by showing off your own. You may learn something, too.

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Lots more to say on the subject . . .


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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But again, that's not the issue here.

The issue here is whether a tiny restaurant can justifiably withhold ONE PERK from its regulars.

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I mean, FG, what it sounds like is that you're pissed off because David Chang is trying to interfere with your paradigm. But I thought that's what Momo is all about.

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I mean, FG, what it sounds like is that you're pissed off because David Chang is trying to interfere with your paradigm.  But I thought that's what Momo is all about.

Were I pissed off, the main thing I'd be pissed off about is the insistence that I have some ulterior motive here. You'll find that the discussion makes a lot more sense if you take what I'm saying at face value, just as I've always done with your comments no matter how sure I am that you're wrong in any particular instance.

To the substantive argument that you've made, reservations are not just "ONE PERK." Reservations are foundational. Without them, you can't go to the restaurant. So yeah, where I'm a regular, I absolutely expect that the restaurant will do what it can to accommodate me. This expectation is based on both common sense and empirical observation. And it's not about my paradigm or any sort of paradigm particular to the restaurant industry. It's about businesses giving valued customers their due. I don't become a regular customer of a business -- especially not a luxury business -- when that business doesn't allocate its resources in favor of its best customers. That's not a paradigm, that's just a mistake.

But again, it's not about me, no matter how much you wish to personalize the argument. It's about the problems inherent in this sort of contrived egalitarianism.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I've watched this topic from afar (safe in the knowledge that I'm probably never going to get the chance to eat at Ko anyway) but the question of treating regulars well vs. an "egalitarian" system intrigues me.

It strikes me that what FG is saying is simply good business sense for the vast majority of restaurants, but I wonder if in this case the "egalitarian model" makes *more* sense.

Firstly, a restaurant (albeit a pricey restaurant) with 12 or 14 covers in a place like NY probably has enough depth of clientele to keep them going for a long time without needing to worry too much about repeat business. Chang (like Hansel) is so hot right now. As well as the eGullet-style patron, there are probably plenty of others who will want to eat there on the back of the hype and inevitably cracking Bruni review. So that covers things for quite some time and gets a lot of bums on seats.

The thing is, when that hype wears off, I have a sneaking suspicion that the kind of diner who will ensure Ko is filled every night is the kind of diner who approves of the "egalitarian" model -- young, hip, happy to drop serious cash for really good food without needing the other trappings of fine dining, basically the kind of person who does not really frequent Daniel or the equivalent. I suspect that, among such a demographic, even the vague sense that a 12-14 seater restaurant was really a private club that you couldn't get into would be a killer blow.

There isn't much wiggle-room with such a low number of seats: if you're catering for regulars and VIPs in the usual way, you're probably going to need pretty much all of those seats, otherwise many who think they're of VIP status are going to lose out pretty regularly. One way to ensure such regulars don't get pissed off is to tell them there are no concessions for regulars, ergo you're special, we want you, we'll treat you well when you get here, but we just can't guarantee reservations.

Of course, I don't believe that the 100% egalitarian system is ever really possible. If Chang's mother wants to eat at Ko, he's going to find her a seat, not a computer terminal. I'm 100% sure that there'll always be special dispensation for those *really* close, but I think there just isn't enough room to extend this luxury to all who might be considered VIPs at a larger restaurant.

Si

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well, taking the topic of this thread at face value:

I get comped something a fair amount...even on the first visit...at a lot of places. I also get into a lot of hard-to-get-into places at prime times on prime nights (say 9:00 on a Saturday).

how? I don't do reservations. the actual fact of the matter is that in NYC, your odds of getting into a hard-to-get-into restaurant at a prime time are much higher as a walk-in than making a reservation...unless you are a VIP or a regular. simple fact. and I'm not just talking about sitting at the bar (although sitting at the bar and conversing with the bartender is the easiest way to start getting comps).

I'm talking about parties of 2, 3, 4...

the caveat here is that obviously you can't guarantee it will work with any particular restaurant. so you have to have a backup plan...you should have three different restaurants in the same neighborhood that you're willing to eat at.

another thing: yes, a $20 bill (or more) can work wonders. but it works in one way...given in a handshake...as you're leaving the restaurant...as a "thank you" for a favor given....not as a direct bribe.

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In Turning the Tables, Fat Guy suggested that it's much better to become a regular at just a few places, rather than try a whole bunch of places. He reiterates it here. I disagreed then, and I disagree now.

The suggestion is also at odds with his own track record. Given Fat Guy's practically encyclopedic knowledge of NYC restaurants, it's clear that he's out to try as many of them as realistically possible. So am I.

He is also fortunate enough to have become a regular at a few of those places, and to have seen the benefits that accrue by doing so. This I have not done, for a variety of reasons. And for most people, I don't think it's particularly necessary or useful.

The fact is, in the OpenTable era, there is hardly a day or time when you can't get into a great restaurant. For instance, just now I searched for a 4-top at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), and got back 528 restaurants with availability within 2 hours of that, including several excellent ones at exactly 8:00 (along with a lot of dreck, to be sure). There's something seriously wrong with you if you can't find a restaurant on that list for just about any mood or price range. Even Per Se was available, albeit at 9:00.

Now, it would be extremely tedious to have to call restaurants one by one at short notice. A decade ago, that would've been your only option. But when you can find availability online instantly, it's less important to have a "go to place" that, no matter what, can always accommodate you.

FG's point on the Momofuku thread was seriously misunderstood. He wasn't saying, "Unless they treat me like royalty, I'm not going there." He was merely saying that at places where he makes a large investment of time and money — he doesn't expect Ko to be one of them — he expects to be treated like a valued customer. And one way smart restaurants do that is by holding back some seats for regulars. It's too soon to tell whether Ko will do that; they could be doing it already, for all we know.

I doubt that very many people become regulars with a quid pro quo explicitly in mind. FG became a regular at Gramercy Tavern primarily because he loves the place. I doubt that he, of all people, would waste his time there if this weren't the case. But at the same time, he both appreciates and expects that his loyalty will be rewarded. Why shouldn't he? It seems logical enough.

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I think it's possible to see both sides of this.

Of course a regular will get, should get and reasonably does expect a certain amount of special treatment. That's the nature of the business, and of course the nature of the perks change from business to business. In some contexts, the perk may simply involve simply being recognized by the staff or being able to say "the regular" and get your food and/or drink just the way you like it. In other contexts, it may involve comping, preferential reservations, etc. Certainly I have stopped going to some perfectly good restaurants because I didn't feel like my continued patronage was sufficiently appreciated, and eventually took my business elsewhere -- not necessarily deliberately, but rather that the restaurant's lack of special attention made it easy for another place to win my affections with their easygoing special attention. I've posted about this in the past with respect to the demise of the excellent Upper West Side middlebrow neighborhood restaurant, @SCQ. Ultimately @SQC failed, in my opinion, because they never were able to sustain the kind of loyal following and repeat business they needed due to FOH problems and a failure to adequately reward regulars with perks. In contrast, the second time I went to the TriBeCa Landmarc, I was recognized, seated at the same table I had requested on my previous visit, told about an offal special that would be of particular interest to me, etc. Despite the fact that the food at @SQC could be more refined and innovative than the usually straightforward fare at Landmarc, it was pretty easy to transfer loyalty and business to Landmarc after getting better treatment on my second there visit than I had had over the course of several years patronizing @SQC.

On the other hand, Momofuku Ko is a very different kind of restaurant. For one, it's not clear to me that this is a restaurant that will depend greatly upon repeat business from regulars at Momofuku Ko in order to sustain profitability and popularity. To the extent that the restaurant is sustained by regulars, these can be regulars at the other Momo businesses who are perked at those venues according to the somewhat unique practices associated with the Momofuku brand. And while it does seem clear to me that the other Momofukus do perk their regulars, it's also true that it seems to be a fairly different kind of perking that happens at these venues. As Momofuku regulars have observed, for example, they still sometimes have to wait an hour to be seated rather than being jumped to the front of the line as would be both normal and expected at most restaurants. This suggests to me that a Momofuku regular is not the same sort of person as, say, a Grammercy Tavern regular or a Landmarc regular. If the discussion here is any indication, it seems that around 95% of Momofuku regulars, semi-regulars and fans (or, rather 100% minus 1 person) kind of like the idea of Momofuku Ko's unusual reservations system. And, just as much as these regulars don't mind waiting an hour for a seat at Noodle Bar (which "normal" regulars would never abide) they don't seem to mind Ko's reservations system. Again: these are people who are Momofuku regulars, but are unlikely to become Momofuku Ko regulars -- and trips to Ko are likely to be a special treat. It's not clear that, under Ko's model, there can be such a thing as a "regular" at Momofuku Ko. Can this work and be sustainable? We'll see. Chang so far has a pretty good track record of having success doing things a little differently than conventional wisdom says he should. He also has a pretty good track record of making whatever changes and tweaks are required to succeed. It will be interesting to see what happens the first few times someone who's tight with the Momo crew asks if there's some way they can sneak in a few reservations in advance as a special favor. Of course, unless that person blabs, no one will ever know.


--

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If Chang's mother wants to eat at Ko, he's going to find her a seat, not a computer terminal.

Well, in Chang's defense, he has been proactive about appearances here. As chronicled in the GQ profile of Chang:

Joe and Sherri [Chang's parents] showed up one night to have dinner. When they were done, their son handed Joe a bill for $50. “My wife was really shocked that parents had to pay the tab,” he says, “but I think it was really smart to show all the managers and support team that nobody gets comped. So I paid. I gave him $100 and told him to keep the change.”

So it's certainly possible that he'll tell his parents no.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The fact is, in the OpenTable era, there is hardly a day or time when you can't get into a great restaurant. For instance, just now I searched for a 4-top at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), and got back 528 restaurants with availability within 2 hours of that, including several excellent ones at exactly 8:00 (along with a lot of dreck, to be sure). There's something seriously wrong with you if you can't find a restaurant on that list for just about any mood or price range. Even Per Se was available, albeit at 9:00.

This was exactly the point I was trying to make when I suggested that I didn't feel like getting a reservation, at any restaurant, either by having to hit the reload button on my computer or the redial button on my telephone. It's not that once-in-a-lifetime concert, it's a restaurant.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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In Turning the Tables, Fat Guy suggested that it's much better to become a regular at just a few places, rather than try a whole bunch of places. He reiterates it here. I disagreed then, and I disagree now.

The suggestion is also at odds with his own track record. Given Fat Guy's practically encyclopedic knowledge of NYC restaurants, it's clear that he's out to try as many of them as realistically possible. So am I.

He is also fortunate enough to have become a regular at a few of those places, and to have seen the benefits that accrue by doing so. This I have not done, for a variety of reasons. And for most people, I don't think it's particularly necessary or useful.

My knowledge of New York City restaurants is hardly encyclopedic. Most weeks, I probably don't even dine out as often as you or Nathan or whomever. But our positions are also different, because I do this for a (sort of) living. So I'm able to maintain some breadth of knowledge because, for example, I was just doing a story for Crain's on wine bars and so I visited about 40 wine bars over a period of a couple of weeks -- sometimes several a night -- and Crain's paid. Now I know a lot about wine bars, it's true. I also get invited to various press previews and such, which helps me keep tabs on new places. What you can be sure of, though, is that when I pay for a meal out of the household budget it will usually be at a place where I'm a regular or expect I might become one. There are of course exceptions. If a new opening is very important -- like Ko, or Per Se -- I'll pay to go there at least once even though I'm sure I won't become a regular (at Per Se, on account of the cost; at Ko, on account of the reservations policy). But most of the time you'll find me allocating my limited dining budget at places where I'm a regular. (Except at New Green Bo where they've abused me for a decade but I don't care because it's so cheap and good.)

And I think your conclusion, that being a regular isn't "necessary or useful" for most people, is a claim you're not in a position to make at this time. Certainly, personal tastes vary. You may be a person who fundamentally favors diversity of experience to depth of experience. But you only have the diversity part right now, so it's premature for you to judge. I've corresponded with hundreds of people (well, a few dozen at least) who've read my book (judging from my sales figures they all shared one copy) and have been amazed and delighted at the treatment regulars can get at restaurants. I mean, I've seen enough "My eyes are opened!" correspondence hit my inbox on this issue in the past couple of years that I can say for sure that the "not necessary or useful for most people" theory is not valid.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Shudder away, but when you pay a couple of hundred dollars for dinner gratitude may not be the appropriate sentiment.

well, that we agree on. but there's a flipside to it...when I'm spending a couple hundred dollars at a restaurant whether it's the first time or the fiftieth time, I expect good treatment. when a restaurant is concentrating primarily on taking care of its regulars, the treatment for the non-regulars (who are paying the same money) often suffers.

I think that there was a misinterpretation here of what I'm saying. I'm grateful for my situation that I can eat out on a regular basis. I walk into a restaurant feeling happy about that. I'm not walking into a restaurant thinking "How am I going to get even more".

It's not that I'm grateful to a restaurant for letting me eat there and spend a lot of money. That's ridiculous.


Edited by spaetzle_maker (log)

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I mean, FG, what it sounds like is that you're pissed off because David Chang is trying to interfere with your paradigm.  But I thought that's what Momo is all about.

Were I pissed off, the main thing I'd be pissed off about is the insistence that I have some ulterior motive here. You'll find that the discussion makes a lot more sense if you take what I'm saying at face value, just as I've always done with your comments no matter how sure I am that you're wrong in any particular instance.

As I've said before, I'm also of the view that you have an ulterior motive, although I believe that you honestly don't think you do.

I think you've built a business model on there being a special preferred category of "regular" diners who get preferential reservation access, extra courses, comped drinks, better tables, or whatever. I think the excerpt you posted from your course bears this out. I think that you pay your bills, at least in part, by the assumption that this is the relationship that restuarants have [and should have] with customers. And I think that 99.9% of your time, you are right that there is this multi-tiered approach to restaurants and there will always be an audience that wants to learn the lessons you teach about how to join that club of insiders.

What's interesting to me though is that Chiang - someone who we all seem to admire - has decided to not do that and at least try to have a complete no-favorites reservation book. And it sounds to me like almost everyone here - momo regulars and others - think that's pretty cool.

I don't hear anyone other than you saying (and I know you'll disagree with how I paraphrase here) that:

-he's a hypocrite because he had a friends and family and media week

-he's probably still sneaking his friends and family and VIPS in through the back door

-his regulars will be outraged

-this will never work

So yes, I think you have an axe to grind here, because there's a piece of the "old paradigm" that Chiang is experimenting with here, and it's the specific part of the old paradigm that you seem to have build a career on.

My views on that piece are pretty clear, and I think they're in line with what several others have said - I've occasionally experienced preferential treatment from restaurants that know me, but never in an especially reliable way. It's nice when it happens but it's not expected and I don't feel even slightly entitled to it. On the other hand, I've seen restaurants fawning over guests who do have a sense of entitlement to these perks and it's rubbed me the wrong way - making me feel like I'm one of those plane passengers shlubbing through the first class cabin past people sipping "champagne" as I make my way to my middle seat in row 3000.

So on the whole, I don't like that piece of the paradigm, notwithstanding the fact that I sometimes benefit from it.

It bums me out that Chiang's decision to experiment with this piece of the puzzle is something that someone on this board is going to actually criticise and deride him for.

[Counting the moments until the eG powers that be summon security to gently escort me out of the building]


Edited by jimk (log)

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And I think your conclusion, that being a regular isn't "necessary or useful" for most people, is a claim you're not in a position to make at this time. Certainly, personal tastes vary. You may be a person who fundamentally favors diversity of experience to depth of experience. But you only have the diversity part right now, so it's premature for you to judge.

Yes, but by the same token, you've never (as far as I can tell) foregone the 'diversity' part of the equation, so I could argue that you don't know what it's like to never try anything new, which is essentially what your book advocates.

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Yes, but by the same token, you've never (as far as I can tell) foregone the 'diversity' part of the equation, so I could argue that you don't know what it's like to never try anything new, which is essentially what your book advocates.

I haven't advocated foregoing the diversity part of the equation. Most people I know who are serious regulars at a few great restaurants do indeed try the important new places, and various other circumstances arise (e.g., their friends choose where to eat some nights) that satisfy the need for diversity. Or maybe sometimes you just want the seafood sausage at Chanterelle even though in all other respects you can't stand Chanterelle. Diversity gets its share, pretty much no matter what. But you talk to people who are entrenched regulars at great restaurants and the overwhelming majority say, "You know, I'm a regular at X, Y and Z, and they treat me so well at those places, and I only dine out Q times a month. So a different restaurant has to present a fairly compelling argument in order to get a place on my dining schedule."


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The fact is, in the OpenTable era, there is hardly a day or time when you can't get into a great restaurant. For instance, just now I searched for a 4-top at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), and got back 528 restaurants with availability within 2 hours of that, including several excellent ones at exactly 8:00 (along with a lot of dreck, to be sure). There's something seriously wrong with you if you can't find a restaurant on that list for just about any mood or price range. Even Per Se was available, albeit at 9:00.

This was exactly the point I was trying to make when I suggested that I didn't feel like getting a reservation, at any restaurant, either by having to hit the reload button on my computer or the redial button on my telephone. It's not that once-in-a-lifetime concert, it's a restaurant.

Sure, but of course what's convenient for one person is inconvenient for another. Given its neighborhood, Ssam Bar is a hassle for me to get there, and if we want to eat at a reasonably prime time on a weekend night we have to build an hour or two of walking around the block or whatever into our evening.

For Ko, it took me 40 minutes of hitting refresh the other day but that 40 minutes got a reservation for 2 at 7:30 on a Saturday night. So for me, a 2-top at Ko involved less hassle than a 2-top at Ssam bar.

Possible that I just got lucky on Ko though and that it'll never happen again.

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Fat Guy: I agree that regulars should be given preferential treatment and perks at their favorite restaurant. I am just not so sure that these privileges should extend across a Chef's entire stable of eateries.

Momofuku Ko is unique in that it is a small 14 seat establishment and from my point of view there is a danger of turning this into another Rao's if only Momofuku chain regulars and VIP'S are given premier access to the reservation process.

Regulars are important to the lifeblood of restaurants, but they are not investors, and their buying power and influence should end at the point when their demands interfere with the mission or vision with the Proprietors.

Chang may have gotten into a business where providing high levels of service are paramount, but he also went into business, because like many entreprenuers he doesn't like somebody else telling him what to do. Which in a round about way is what the irate "regulars" are attempting by engaging in their tantrum because they cannot manipulate the booking process at a new restaurant.

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The fact is, in the OpenTable era, there is hardly a day or time when you can't get into a great restaurant. For instance, just now I searched for a 4-top at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), and got back 528 restaurants with availability within 2 hours of that, including several excellent ones at exactly 8:00 (along with a lot of dreck, to be sure). There's something seriously wrong with you if you can't find a restaurant on that list for just about any mood or price range. Even Per Se was available, albeit at 9:00.

This was exactly the point I was trying to make when I suggested that I didn't feel like getting a reservation, at any restaurant, either by having to hit the reload button on my computer or the redial button on my telephone. It's not that once-in-a-lifetime concert, it's a restaurant.

I do make an exception for what I'd call "unique experiences" — and Ko falls in that category. I also spent 20 minutes on hold with Per Se to get a reservation, and it was well worth it.

On the other hand, I have never been to Gramercy Tavern because it's too difficult to get in. Obviously it's no more difficult than Ko or Per Se—clearly less so, in fact. But it hasn't 'grabbed me' enough that I'm willing to make it an obsession, which it clearly needs to be if you want to dine there at what I consider to be a reasonable time.

Likewise, my fitful attempts to get a reservation at Babbo (I've dined at the bar in the past) have been met with failure, and at this point I've stopped trying.

For Ko, it took me 40 minutes of hitting refresh the other day but that 40 minutes got a reservation for 2 at 7:30 on a Saturday night. So for me, a 2-top at Ko involved less hassle than a 2-top at Ssam bar.

Possible that I just got lucky on Ko though and that it'll never happen again.

You did get lucky, because that was the first day. The site was only intermittently working, and they had a whole week's worth of tables to sell. The last couple of days, the "next open day" has sold out in under two minutes.
Edited by oakapple (log)

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Anthony A is exactly right. There was some suggestion that Chang is being hypocritical because he had a "Friends & Family" before opening with the purported "no preference" system. But the point is, if Chang gave preferences the way "normal" restaurants do, the people at F&F (and a few others) would be the ONLY people who EVER get to eat at Ko.

Now I'm not arguing that there are NO people who are EVER going to get seating preferences at Ko. I'm not that naive. I'm sure there are super-regulars, visiting chefs, family, and others who may be squeezed in. I'm only arguing that Chang's refusal to extend such privileges to the usual extent makes sense AT THIS PARTICULAR RESTAURANT.

And is nothing Chang's regulars should take umbrage to.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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of course there are back doors if you work in the biz meaning in the kitchen we are given benefits that regular crowds and press are not shown, because many of us have worked long painful hours for limited pay,,,, that we feel the need to treat each other better than the civilian crowd....... ill go out of my way to make sure that a respected garde manger guy, referred by a friend gets better treatment than a big roller/ blogger/ know it all foodie will ever get,,, simply because we as chefs see these people as kin,,, where as the others are just "civilians" no matter how important you may think you are,,, your not as important as a guy who busts his ass for 300 bones a week,

The purported backdoor I was referring to was not for someone ITB, it was for a big spending regular. I have no problem with that per se, just with the whole "democratic" approach to dining that still seems to have room for a little bit of favoritism.

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But there's a difference between "a little bit of favoritism" and effectively closing the doors of your restaurant to the general public.

If Chang doesn't want Ko to turn into the EV Rao's -- a place you simply can't get into if you don't have connections -- I think that's only to be applauded.

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Really, I look at the whole thing -- not just the reservations system but the entire restaurant concept -- as an experiment. Changs other places also opened as experiments to one extent or another. Noodle Bar seems to have worked pretty well from the get-go. Ssam Bar, needless to say, went through considerable evolution. And both places continue to evolve. This is fundamentally different from many restaurants. Babbo, for example, really hasn't changed meaningfully since its doors opened, and while Gramercy Tavern has certainly changed plenty under the new chef, it's still not on the same scale of change that we've seen at Ssam Bar.

So, he's trying out a new idea. The chances are that it won't work out quite the way it was expected to work, and I have the feeling that we'll see plenty of evolution in all aspects of Ko. I hope we all agree that trying new things is interesting and good, and I certainly feel that Chang's willingness to try new things (and then try more new things based on results or unexpected developments) is one of the most interesting things about his work.


--

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As I've said before, I'm also of the view that you have an ulterior motive, although I believe that you honestly don't think you do.

I guess you're not going to let go of the desire to personalize the argument. Still, I'll do my best to engage you on the substantive, non-personal aspects of what you're saying.

What's interesting to me though is that Chiang - someone who we all seem to admire - has decided to not do that and at least try to have a complete no-favorites reservation book. And it sounds to me like almost everyone here - momo regulars and others - think that's pretty cool.

It sounds pretty cool, so most people can be expected to think it's pretty cool. I don't. That's why we're having this discussion. But surely you'd agree that arguments -- as opposed to legislative disagreements -- don't get resolved "democratically." They get decided by things like facts. Eventually, we'll have a lot more factual data, but we already have some. For example, the friends and family thing:

I don't hear anyone other than you saying (and I know you'll disagree with how I paraphrase here) that:

-he's a hypocrite because he had a friends and family and media week

"Friends and family" is of course euphemism for "high-value customers, members of the press, and a few friends and family." I believe that concept is inherently at odds with an egalitarian system of allocating seats. That's why you get comments like the introduction to Ruth Reichl's piece on Ko:

Halfway through dinner at the new Momofuku Ko it hits you: You will never eat dinner here again.

“No phone. No favorites. No exceptions,” vows David Chang: His new restaurant will take reservations only online, on a first-come, first-served basis, starting one week ahead.

I wouldn't say it's flat out hypocrisy to invite Ruth Reichl for the purposes of press coverage while claiming "No favorites." But I do think it's borderline. Certainly, it's a clear "have your cake and eat it too" situation.

-he's probably still sneaking his friends and family and VIPS in through the back door

Let's assume he isn't. Don't you agree that if the owners of the restaurant ever do those things in the future then it will be clearly hypocritical?

-his regulars will be outraged

-this will never work

If every seat at the restaurant is full all the time, those points could turn out to be academic from a business perspective. Likewise, if all manner of other schemes for rewarding regulars are kept intact (extra dishes at Ko, VIP treatment at the other Momofuku restaurants) then the reservations piece of the egalitarian plan could be sustainable -- though again we get into contradictions between the no-VIP reservations theory and the old-paradigm-VIP theory applied to all other aspects of the Momofuku group's operations.

But if every seat isn't full all the time -- if business slows down on Monday nights a year from now -- there could be problems. That's when a business looks back and says, gee, maybe we should have cultivated a group of regulars a little better. Because regulars keep restaurants full on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In addition, even in a 100%-reserved-every-day scenario, regulars are many times more reliable in terms of no-show rates than a group of people selected at random. Regulars are also likely to spend more on marginal items. Regulars, for the most part, are more enjoyable for the staff to deal with.

So yes, I think you have an axe to grind here, because there's a piece of the "old paradigm" that Chiang is experimenting with here, and it's the specific part of the old paradigm that you seem to have build a career on.

I have no axe to grind, I have not "built a career" on preferential reservations for regulars, and if you persist in accusing me of having ulterior motives I'll have little choice but to ignore your subsequent comments.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It is Chang's business and he is entitled to choose how he allocates seats on any given night. No reservations at all? Fine. Internet-only reservations? Fine. Hand dice out at the door and only people who roll double sixes can come in? That's fine too. His business, his choice.

Sure, we'd all like to eat there. He has chosen to require us to run the reservations gauntlet if we do. And the time when we know whether that is/was a good idea is a long way off yet.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other places to eat.


Cooking and writing and writing about cooking at the SIMMER blog

Pop culture commentary at Intrepid Media

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