Why Making a Reservation in Toronto Reminds me of an Anchorman Melee

There has been a definite evolution in the process behind making a restaurant reservation over the past decade.  Years ago, you either showed up live or called ahead and a friendly person on the other end would scratch your name into a book.  Now, the lucrative online reservation systems has blossomed  and many restaurants are left to choose which system fits their business needs the best.  In the end, the choice appears relatively seamless to the patron, but there are some interesting observations to make about this cutthroat business.

Some restaurants have gotten rather creative with the reservation process. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, for example, offers reservations for dates two months later.   The reservation process starts at midnight and  I will admit I woke up at 3 am to try and secure a spot but was left unsuccessful and had to stand in line with the rest of the peasants.  Others restaurants are asking for credit cards in advance and threaten charges if there is a cancellation too close to the reservation time.

No Reservations

Congratulations, you are a successful restaurant who is either relishing in the fact that people line up to get in or your establishment is so tiny that  you have no problem hitting your capacity on a nightly basis and don’t need a system.  You’re a pain in the ass because if you are looking to entertain clients, have a birthday or plan to propose to your girlfriend, you have to hope to hell that the stars align and you can get a seat without having to wait two hours.  You probably will only seat people once the whole party arrives and you likely take cash only as well.

Reservation by Phone 

Yes, there are restaurants which still see a phone as something you talk on as opposed to checking in, tagging friends and taking pictures.  This system is not conducive to those who have a whimsical desire to make a reservation at 3 am.  In all likelihood, restaurants who subscribe to phone only reservations are:

  • long-standing eateries that have been using a reservation book since 1960 and damn well won’t change now.
  • owned by control freaks who don’t think a computer could never do what a human can.
  • likely to still hand-write bills and frown when you insist that the stub on the bottom is not a sufficient receipt for business purposes and begrudgingly copy one by hand upon request.

OpenTable

OpenTable is the patriarch (or matriarch) of online reservations systems. Once a monopoly, they were known for offering bonus points and a lack of a 7 pm slot on almost any night of the week at some restaurants. Although they still own the lion share of the business (but still only have 322 accounts in Toronto proper), they have responded to recent competition by  undergoing  a major rebrand focused on pillars which include warm and welcoming, inspired and reliable and fresh and current although it would be naive to think that all restaurants they work with have the same philosophy.You still get the opportunity to review the restaurant after and get the subtly threatening email if you don’t show up threatening that you might get banned if such indiscretions continue (even if the restaurant fails to record your attendance).  Open table restaurants tend to include:

  • those who fare better on tripadvisor than yelp.  Tripadvisor uses open table as their reservations system.
  • conglomerates such as O and B and The Khabouth empire since you can refer to affiliated restaurants in the event your first choice isn’t available.
  • those whose names start with numbers or the letter a since they are listed in alphabetical order when searched by region.
  • pricey restaurants in expensive hotels and those who wish they were pricey restaurants in expensive hotels.

 Seatme

Now owned and operated by yelp, this reservation system is less centralized.  Seatme does not have a master website like OpenTable but is meant to attract small business owners  who either find open table too difficult, expensive or cumbersome.  Unlike urbanspoon and tripadvisor, the yelp site itself does not pimp their online reservation system by embedding it in the reviews.  Instead of going to a central site, one gets prompted to reserve via seatme when they go to the restaurant’s site looking for a table.  On the consumer side, it is hardly distinguishable from other reservation systems but  on the vendor’s side it promises a better and cheaper experience than Open Table.

Bookenda

At the end of 2014, yellow media (the yellow pages people) announced the acquisition of both bookenda and dine.TO.  Bookenda is a online reservation that is gaining steam in pockets across Canada including the GTA.  It’s membership is impressive; Pai, Thoroughbred, Rasa, People’s eatery, Ruby Watchco and Edulis are among the hot destinations under the bookenda umbrella.  Like OpenTable, there is a reward program. Instead of saving points in the hope of someday attaining an elusive dining certificate, bookenda offers a variety of reward opportunities for as little as 400 points.  Points are not only awarded for booking online but also if you post your reservation on facebook or make a comment about your experience on their site afterwards.

My Take

Long gone are the days of picking up the phone and dialing a rotary phone during business hours in the hope of securing a 7 pm reservation at your favourite eatery.  Now, you can simply go on a smart phone, tablet or computer at anytime of day and secure anything but a 7pm reservation at any number of establishments.  In some cases, you can be recognized for your loyalty with points which may lead  to a glass of wine, a free appetizer or the ultimate prize of an OpenTable dining certificate.

I picture that scene from Anchorman when the rival broadcasters including the likes of Vince Vaughan and Tim Robbins assemble in the parking lot for a good old-fashioned brouhaha.  In the restaurant world, the clans would be divided based on their reservation system.  In one corner would be the no reservation group who ironically would need to wait outside the lot until space in the lot became available and the whole group was there.  Their main artillery would be dirty looks and ignorance.  The reservation by phone group may sport tin foil hats to prevent satellite interference and carry archaic weaponry  reminiscent of  Game of Thrones. The OpenTable entourage (although they would not likely show around peak dining hours) would be the largest, led by Michael Bonacini and includes fans of tripadvisor and urbanspoon wearing “Keep Calm and Use Opentable” T-shirts. Seatme peeps would be scattered throughout the parking lot like lone vigilantes. The bookenda bevy would likely be led by Lynn Crawford with patrons wearing red t-shirts symbolizing Canada which spell out “Bookenda is the New OpenTable” scrawled across the front in large white writing as they sipped free wine they got for 400 points.

"I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!"
“I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!”

 

In the end, the competitive world of online reservations has made it easier than ever for patrons to plan in advance when eating out.   Of course, there are still a number of restaurants who feel that it is an honour and privilege to dine there and don’t mind making people wait for the experience. Otherwise, with some flexibility, one can plan a dinner without too much of a headache regardless of the system.  A quick call to the restaurant might be necessary to secure the elusive 6-8 pm time slot but otherwise it is a pretty easy to book, show up and reap the rewards of a completed meal.  You even have the opportunity, good or bad, to enlighten fellow diners about what you ate and how the experience was….without the need for pitchforks.

 

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State Bird Provisions: Quail More Popular than the Former Vice-President

I have a confession. Let’s set the stage.  State bird in San Francisco is known for next to impossible reservations.  At midnight pacific time, a small block of reservations open up for the date exactly two months later.   So, I crawled out of bed at 3 am eastern time, wearily opened my computer, entered the security code (the demand for reservations  forced them to implement a security measure through open table similar to the one where you buy concert tickets) which I thinks was either “goodluckbuddy” or “youareafool”  or “gobacktobed” and was shut out.  It seemed my only opportunity would be to get in line and wait it out with the rest of the lottery losers. Despite the fact that state bird has very minimal outdoor signage, it’s not hard to figure out where it is….it’s the place with the line.  Located on the not nice side of Fillmore, I arrived about 45 minutes before to find about 15 people waiting.  During the wait, I thought about other things I have waited 45 minutes for:

  • I waited 45 minutes with my daughter  to get on that swan ride at Wonderland. You know, the one where you ride a plastic bird at a quarter mile and hour in 2 feet of stagnant water for what seems like an eternity so your kid can feel like the queen of water fowl.
  • I once waited with my grandmother for 45 minutes in anticipation of the next K-mart blue light hourly special.  Elated by securing some  fancy glassware she just bought, she was more than happy to wait for the opportunity to snap up the next deal on women’s hosiery.
  •  My mother asked to me wait in line for almost an hour to get her a limited edition commemorative royal family beanie baby a number of years ago.  I stood in line with a bunch of blue hairs bragging about their collection ranging from the Princess Diana purple rose bear to some rare fish named Bubbles.

Come to think about it, I ordered a pizza in university circa 1993 that I’m still waiting for so  I guess 45 minutes isn’t that bad.  As time went on, the line got longer and it also got fatter.  I never read the memo where one person was allowed to get there early and hold two or three spots for friends showing up later.  By the time 530 rolled around, there were more like 20 or 25 ahead of me. When the doors finally opened, the line quickly funneled in to the open doors.  Group by group, patrons were seated.  I was starting to sweat a little when I finally got to the front of the line.  The two groups in front of me were still waiting for truant tablemates so they were asked to move aside until the whole party arrived.  I gladly proclaimed “Table for two and  we are both here!’.  The woman at the door (who turned out to be one of the owners), yelled out 3/4 as we entered State Bird Provisions.  It turned out 3/4 means we were seated right in the middle of the chef’s table.  Let the fun begin….

Hanging with some carrots and peppers at seat 3/4
Hanging with some carrots and peppers at seat 3/4

The concept is simple.  About half the menu is served dim sum style.  As members of the illustrious chef’s table, you not only get to witness the creation of this dishes, you also have first dibs at the eats.  As each comes up, the chef explains the dish (don’t ask before hand!), tells you the price and you decide if you want it.  My will power melts like hot butter when offered food so I had a hard time saying no.  If you agree, the chef, waiter or any other staff member checks off the number that corresponds to the cost.  The other half of the menu consists of  larger dishes which you order a la carte.  Included in this are things like trout, bone marrow and the famous pancakes. Given the fact I tried a number of dishes, it makes sense to list them in order of preference to try and bring some order to what turned out to be a night of modest gluttony:

 

1/2 dozen cast iron quail eggs $12

The best dish of the night.  Six quail eggs are flash fried in a hot skillet among a flavourful broth boasting a nice blend of heat and acid.  I asked the chef about it and he let me know the heat came from pressed jalapeno juice (not brine from a jar of picked peppers).  Brilliant! It was also served with chunks of Mt. Tam cheese, pea hummus and a few garlic chips.  I discussed this local cheese in a previous blog but as a reminder it’s a local brie-like cheese that added a wonderful silkiness to the dish.  Combined with the earthiness and freshness of the  hummus and along with peppery arugula, it was a complete dish that was a cross between a destructed omelette and having the supernatural ability to consume many components  of a tasty volcano.

1/2 Dozen Quail eggs
1/2 Dozen Quail eggs

Air-dried beef with chili juice, rice powder & garlic chips $8

I got to watch the creation of this dish from start to finish.  It’s remarkably simple.  Quality beef quickly fried on a flat top along with copious amounts of  rice flour (which i thought was salt until he added about a cup of it on the beef)  which browned nicely, keep the meat moist and added a delicious crisp coating.  It was topped with fresh scallions and garlic crisps for extra visual effects and flavour.

State Bird Beef
Bad picture of air-dried beef with chili juice, rice powder & garlic chips $8

 

State Bird with provisions $9

California has the privilege of having one of the only edible state birds.   I find it interesting that I can’t pick a trillium in Ontario but I can eat a quail in California. I’m sure this liberty isn’t granted in every state. After all, Robin au gratin  from Wisconsin or Tex-Mex Cactus Wren from Arizona certainly does not sound as appealing as a chunk of deep-fried Californian quail.The coating on the half bird was crispy and seasoned nicely.  It was a tricky but enjoyable navigation to eat the small bird in fried chicken fashion but well worth the effort. Useless trivia fact: the cardinal is the most common state bird (7 states-Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and both Virginias)  followed the Western Meadowlark (6-Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming) and mockingbird (5- Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas).

State Bird "Provisions"
State Bird with provisions $9

King Salmon Tartare with Pickled cucumbers and toasted quinoa $10

A very quirky fish girl snuck up behind us offering a tartare prepared table side.  The salmon looked beautiful so it was hard to resist.  The tartare was scooped atop some modestly pickled cucumber and topped with a delicious blend of toasted quinoa and roasted seaweed. Nothing beats freshness and the salmon fit the bill.  No need for crostini..the quinoa mix gives it the perfect amount of crunch.

KIng Salmon Tartare
King Salmon Tartare with Pickled cucumbers and toasted quinoa $10

Guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth $3

I missed the first go around of these single dumplings soaked in broth.  Thanks to one of the chefs who hunted one down for me a little later, I was able to indulge.  Dumplings are a simple creation that can be screwed up quite  easily.  The dumpling was crisp but not overcooked and the filling to dough ratio was perfect.  As promised, the broth was aromatic although a little surprising.  I’m used to salt as the predominate taste in a dumpling broth and in this case it was more sour and complex but delicious nonetheless.

state bird dumpling
Guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth $3

Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame $3

I love oysters. They are a glorious way to begin a meal.  I have been teased by friends of mine that I look like a kid in a candy store when I order them.  I take great pride in the careful construction of the oyster including ensuring it is loosened from the shell and has the appropriate amount of horseradish, mignonette, seafood sauce etc. In other words, every mollusk is a canvas and I get to play with the paint.  Keeping that in mind, I found the oyster delicious with balanced and unique seasoning.  It’s just a shame I couldn’t play with it some more.

Oyster
Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame $3

Duck liver mousse with almond biscuit $6

Although no dish was sold to us in used car salesman style, the most boasted item was the duck liver mousse which has been a staple since State Bird opened. I took the opportunity to take a jab at the chefs but reminding them that duck liver is not as common in Canada because we can still serve fois gras in restaurants and duck liver is a weaker substitute.  The mousse was smooth, light and fresh but what impressed me the most were the almond biscuits.  In most cases, the savory and liver-bitter spread is served with a neutral crostini but the sweet biscuit brought it to a new level.

Duck Liver Mousse
Duck liver mousse with almond biscuit $6

“Caesar Salad” $5

A unique spin on the classic caesar, it had all the elements with a few surprises like pickled vegetables. It was a good salad, just not as remarkable as the other menu items.

Caesar Salad
Caesar Salad $5

Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8

I’m pretty sure I have this dish right.  I remember it describe as similar to porridge.  The flavour from the nicely cooked mushroom was front and centre but I did find the dish got boring and predictable very quickly.  It wasn’t bad put did pale in comparison the number of other dynamic and taste bud teasing dishes I ate during the night.  I loved the smoked egg yolk but it got a little overpowered by the predominant mushroom flavour.

Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8
Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8

Garlic bread with burrata $8

Although I enjoyed watching this dish being made more than any other, in the end I was a little disappointed by the flavour.  The dough is rolled with precision,dropped into hot oil and fried donut style.  It is then seasoned and finished with the new San Francisco treat and ubiquitous bay area cheese…burrata.  The underseasoned crispy bread coupled with the bland and sloppy cheese just didn’t work for me although I did enjoy the aggressive use of the black pepper.

Garlic Bread with Burrata
Garlic bread with burrata $8

 

BONUS: Shots of ‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk! When we decided to pass on dessert (we both had other engagements to attend), the staff almost looked sad.  They take enormous pride in their dishes and would let us leave without having a shot of the world peace peanut milk.  One word: outstanding. It was a delicious nectar which collected the X-factor of the delicious legume into one delightful shot.

 

Peanut Milk
A Shot of ‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk

My Take

There were some initial annoyances and misconceptions that I had about State Bird Provisions.  First, I found the reservation system stupid and annoying.  Second, star sightings like Ryan Gosling  and the national hype made me think the vibe would be pretentious.  My mind was changed with  the fact that when I emailed them in advance to ask a few questions, they were authentic and cordial in their responses. Once you are in the place, you are treated like royalty or a VIP member of an exclusive party.  No fewer than 6 staff members talked to us, told us their stories, explained the food and beamed with an authentic pride unlike most restaurants I have dined in.  They got to know you, asked for opinions and treated you like a human, not a credit card. In summary, it was delicious FUN.  They didn’t need gimmicks or loud music or dorks with attitude dressed like fools to create a self-serving brand.  Instead, a cool concept with great service and fantastic food with the customer as the focal point is what earned this place a Michelin star.  As for the 45 minute wait, the experience inside made it well worth it.  It’s not like I haven’t wasted an hour or two of my life before; I did watch the Place Behind the Pines after all.

 

State Bird Provisions on Urbanspoon

From Hippy to Hipster: The Rules Haven’t Changed

I remember listening to the song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band (and later Tesla) when growing up.  It speaks of the tribulations of a hippie trying to get a job or into a country club without a membership card. It was a scream at the state of society in the early 70s and reminds me of what it’s like trying to enjoy a meal in a restaurant in 2012.

 The rules have changed in food service and establishments since the Five Man Electrical Band but remain as outdated as they were back then. Currently, establishments will have you believe that their rules are not  an expression of pretension but in fact a matter of improving efficiency and adhering to good business practices. I call bull shit. Here are the some of the most ridiculous rules in food service today:

1.  No Reservations with No Regret

I question any establishment who informs me that at this time “we regret at this time we are unable to accept reservations”.  Open Table provides online reservations for over  25 000 restaurants across North America.  Each one of these restaurants is “able” to accept reservations. Last time I checked the combination of a phone number, a hostess and a paper calendar is another way to ensure that people reserve a seat.  I commend any restaurant whose success warrants an exclusion from the need to make a reservation, but it doesn’t help when meeting friends you haven’t seen in years or trying to impress a girlfriend, spouse or customer.  “Hey, honey, I knew you’d enjoy standing in line for 45 minutes for the privilege of eating here” sounds much more romantic rolling of the tongue  than “I knew you’d like this place so I made a reservation a month ago to make sure we could get in”.

As an example, the Mandarin, one of the busiest buffet restaurants in Ontario, willingly takes reservations although they don’t really need  to so you don’t have to leave Gramma standing in the front door waiting for her chicken balls.  

2.  “As a result of our policy, we won’t seat you until your entire party has arrived”. 

I’m puzzled by this one.  I recently went to a restaurant where I was  footing  the bill for 9 people who were in various meeting during the day.  I made a reservation (see it works!), let everybody know  and was informed at the door, despite 8 of the 9 of us arriving,  that we would not be seated until the whole party showed.  I suppose I understand the fact that it makes much more sense to clog the doorway with people waiting to eat than just sitting them down and letting them start on overpriced cocktails and appetizers.  I guess I could of loaded up the clown car and have us all roll in at the same time so as not to create any inconvenience for the restaurant.

3. “We can’t give you separate bills”

I challenge anybody to ask the poor waiter or waitress the reason for this policy.  I guarantee you will be 25 different answers ranging from “It’s just our policy” to “our system doesn’t allow us to separate the bills”. I can’t argue with the first one since the answer is so clear and logical. Policy is policy. The second is amusing.  I mean, you have a system that allows you to hit a computer screen with your finger and spit out a ticket to tell the kitchen that you want a medium well burger with extra pickle, no mayo and onion rings instead of fries but it can’t split a bill.  You are also suggesting that your system is unable to take a $180 bill among  6 people and split it evenly. I’m sure any ten-year old has this same question on a math test and can figure out using a  Texas Instruments calculator.

4.  Cash Only

I understand that credit card companies are greedy, money-grubbing scum but they’re damn convenient.  They let you spend what you want on a meal without having to do the calculations in your head based on the money in your pocket.  I’d hate to skip out on the key lime pie because I ordered a side of grits with my brisket  and only have 40 bucks in cash. There are surcharges that restaurants endure to carry Visa/MC/AMEX which increases business costs, but in many cases they are absorbed when pricing the menu.

I guess what I don’t understand is the fact that the “cash only” concept is now considered hip by some. I’ve been in a few restaurants where the server has proudly informed me of the  policy with or without  a phony apology. Others raise their eyebrows as passively stare at the “Cash only” written on the blackboard while clearing their throat.  Don’t  get me wrong, there are some helpful places.  Some are kind enough to install an ATM in the establishment so you can absorb all the costs including whatever service charge they program into the machine. Another was kind enough to tell me that I could order first and that the nearest bank machine was about 500 metres down the road. I left and it felt good. 

 Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not adverse to paying cash, especially at food trucks,  bars and hot dog carts. However, I don’t like being forced to do it, especially when I’m racking up a decent bill with drinks, entrees etc.  It’s not like I see a significant cost savings passed to me especially when I’m sitting in a near condemned house at a formica table with  mismatched chairs eating $14  eggs bennie off  corningware plates I saw at a yard sale last week. 

So, things really haven’t changed much since 1970.  Whereas then you had to have a tie and a membership card to get inside, today you just need patience, your whole group and a big wad of cash.