“Every single restaurant we have has more seating than it has ever had — and they’re just booked,” says Vicki Freeman, a partner at New York City’s Bowery Group, which includes the restaurants Cookshop, Vic’s, Rosie’s, Shuka, and Shukette. As of this writing, tables for two before 9:30 p.m. at Shukette, the group’s latest addition, are full up for the next three weeks on Resy, the reservation-making platform. That happens minutes after reservations open at 9 a.m. each day, explains Freeman. From what she’s seeing, the reservations in the city are more in demand now than they were even in 2019.
Between the return of long lines for pastries and increasingly impossible-to-snap-up bookings, the tables are hot, once again. But what does getting the hot table mean in 2022? This competition is perhaps first and foremost proof that consumers are going back to restaurants. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Resy saw its busiest month ever this April, Tock has experienced record-breaking traffic, and OpenTable reported fewer walk-ins at restaurants in 2022 than in 2019. According to data from Yelp, searches for reservations in the first quarter of 2022 were up 107 percent compared to the same period in 2021, and interest in indoor seating is significantly outpacing outdoor dining.
Especially in the age of FOMO and posting everything we do, see, and eat on social media, the hot table is a particular kind of social currency, one that signifies not only being in the know about where to go but also having the privilege of accessing those spaces. The hot table isn’t just the restaurant with the glowing write-up, but the restaurant that also proves some level of work or connections to get in — a recent positive New York Times review for the Los Angeles restaurant Horses, for example, pointed to a waiting list of 1,784 names on a casual Thursday. When going out remains tenuous, both in terms of the pandemic and tighter purse strings, perhaps each excursion matters more now, too.
For some people, exploring the world of restaurants is synonymous with being out again in the world. Before the pandemic began, Abena Anim-Somuah was a “broke college student,” she says, so the bulk of her New York City dining happened in places that were more budget-conscious than buzzy. But having spent so much time cooking during the pandemic, Anim-Somuah, who has since worked at startups, found herself more drawn to restaurant dining as the world opened up (the “NYT Cooking-to-Resy pipeline,” she jokes). “There’s something so special about New York, where so much of your outside life is in restaurants,” she says.
Now, Anim-Somuah is the kind of diner who sets notifications for 10 a.m. Resy drops, aiming to get a seat at a few goal restaurants each month (at the time of our conversation, Laser Wolf’s new Brooklyn location was a contender). Narrowing her scope forces her to do research about each restaurant to identify which ones she really wants to try, as opposed to which ones everyone else is trying. While she isn’t aiming to go to trendy places just for the sake of it, it’s sometimes coincidental; some restaurants are trendy because they’re doing something exciting, she notes. Her other tricks to get tables include doing the math to figure out how many turns take place at a restaurant per night, stopping by to make a reservation in person, turning on Resy’s notify function, or watching Instagram stories for last-minute opening announcements. She says, “I think that’s super fun for me. It’s like a bit of a game.”
The desire for some to cross specific restaurants off their “must-visit” lists has resulted in diners exchanging fine dining reservations like trading cards on Reddit or finding even more clever alternatives — as Eater NY reported in February, a now-defunct group chat called #FreeRezy would snap up multiple tables at spots like Dhamaka and then release them just to members. And while selling reservations is no new phenomenon, the practice has picked up again, but with very 2022 spins on the concept: A new startup called Front of House has partnered with NYC restaurants to essentially create subscriber access to hotspots. With the popular seafood restaurant Dame, Front of House offers the “Affable Hospitality Club,” which grants an NFT holder the opportunity to book one table a week through the end of the year for a cool $1,000.
“It’s not enough just to know someone who works there anymore,” a Front of House user who bought a $300 membership to the pizza restaurant Emmett’s told the New York Post. A subscription is like “instant VIP status,” the Post wrote. The logic of a model like this one seems to suggest that it’s not just about dining at the “right” place once or twice, but about the opportunity to have the experience of — and be seen as — a regular with valorized status at the places where others might covet a table. It seems natural, after the disconnection of the past two years, for some diners to want to reclaim a sense of stability, even if it comes at a cost.
In this competitive economy, some diners have also gotten sneakier to try to get seats, says Freeman — calling to confirm reservations for group sizes that aren’t an option on Resy, for example. While the platform can feel like a game for some users, Freeman appreciates its sense of fairness. “We don’t have a secret hotline,” she notes.
On a practical level, going out might feel more fraught than it used to, so for some, the security of a reservation is particularly appealing. At Penny Roma, a San Francisco restaurant that opened in October, reservations for two now fill up particularly fast, explains director of operations Amanda Flores. Those groups might not have felt the need to go through this process before the onset of the pandemic, but now, “it feels like [they’re] booking reservations 28 days out just to have a secure plan,” she says. Though they seem very excited to be making new experiences, “I think people are less willing to take the risk of not having a plan in their night than they were historically.”
Overall, this seems to continue a pandemic-fueled shift away from spontaneity. “Because things are busy, I don’t think people want to take the chance of getting somewhere — especially if you’re not in their neighborhood — and be told there’s an hour-and-a-half wait,” says Freeman, of the NYC dining scene. In another big shift, though 8:30 p.m. used to be “like gold” for reservations, the hot table is now more like 6:30 or 7:00, “even if they’re young.”
Anim-Somuah’s desire to expand her knowledge of NYC’s restaurant scene has led to her new venture called Friendly Style by Eden, a series of community-focused dinners that have taken place at hot restaurants including Bonnie’s, Dame, Dept of Culture, and Gage & Tollner. Having hosted nearly 20 Friendly Style dinners, Anim-Somuah has found that her events bring in two types of diners: people who want to socialize and meet new friends in what happens to be a really cool restaurant; and people who’ve been unsuccessfully trying to get into trendy restaurants for months and see Friendly Style as a way in, with meeting new people as more of an aside.
It’s easy to get caught up in the buzz of the must-visit restaurant and the hot reservation, but at the end of the day, there are other places to visit, even if they’re not the ones consistently appearing in your Instagram feed. “Consider the ‘hot’ restaurants of four, five, or even 20 years ago,” the New York Times recommended in a guide for how to find a reservation now. For all of her dining endeavors, Anim-Somuah tries to not put too much pressure on herself to go to any one place. Not being able to snag a table at one restaurant can be a chance to try another place in the neighborhood that needs support. She’s happy to wait a few months if she has to. “I want to be able to really respect the restaurants and what they’re doing,” she says. “When you add more to that hype bubble, it bursts.”
Lucia Pham is an independent illustrator from Vietnam.