Reservations about reservations

Chef owner Joseph Lenn, pictured in the open kitchen of J.C. Holdway, 501 Union Avenue, wishes all customers made reservations.

One of our favorite restaurants, the Bistro at the Bijou, does not take reservations. Another of our favorites, Citico’s, ONLY takes customers by reservations. And a third, Knox Mason, used to not take reservations, but now they do! Same with Tupelo Honey.

What the heck is going on?

Matt Gallaher, chef owner of the newly opened Knox Mason in the Embassy Suites on Gay Street and Emilia on Market Square, another fave of ours, explained it this way. “When we first opened Knox Mason on the 100 block of Gay Street, we were so small and unsure of what the business would be like,” he said recently. “So I talked to other chef owners and they said they lost 15 percent on no-shows when they took reservations. So we didn’t do it.” That was in 2012.

When Gallaher opened Emilia on Market Square in 2016, it was quite a bit larger and accepted reservations through the OpenTable app. Soon, Knox Mason began taking reservations, too.

“I live downtown,” Gallaher said. “But I realized that some folks drive in from Farragut. They need to have a guaranteed spot when they get here. We decided it’s an amenity that our guests really deserve.” Still, he said, “every night we get cancellations and no-shows.”

Over at J.C. Holdway, another fantastic eatery run by another award-winning former Blackberry Farm chef, Joseph Lenn says he feels the same pain — especially on holidays like Valentine’s Day and on days of University of Tennessee home football games. “People make reservations at multiple restaurants and then they pick the one they want and don’t cancel the other reservations,” he said.

Chef Robert Allen at Citico’s serving a brunch dish of house-made gravlax on bagels with creme fraiche, capers, pickled red onions and arugula.

But, overall, he thinks the benefits of taking reservations outweigh the negatives. “I’d love it if everybody made a reservation,” he said. “It helps me know what to order and how to staff. And it ensures people will have a table when they get here.” J.C. Holdway uses the Resy app to manage its reservations.

On the other hand, Martha Boggs, who has managed the Bistro at the Bijou since 1993 and has owned it since 2009, says she has had awful experiences with taking reservations. The Bistro is located on Gay Street right next door to the Bijou Theatre and the restaurant is packed prior to shows there.

“We took reservations for a while,” she said. “It was a disaster. No matter what time customers had a reservation, if it was a show night, they’d come at 6:30. When they called, we’d say, ‘We can’t take you at 6:30. Can you come at 6:15 or 6:45?’ They’d say yes. And then they’d show up at 6:30!”

And then, like Lenn, Boggs said her “biggest beef” was with customers who make reservations but don’t cancel them when they change their minds. “We only have 90 seats,” she noted. “If 10 people don’t show up and the seats go unused because we’ve turned away other people, that’s a big part of our profit margin.”

Chef owner Matt Gallaher at Emilia on Market Square.

Over in Loudon County, at Citico’s, reservations are necessary because the restaurant is located inside a gated community, WindRiver. The guards at the entrance need to have names of expected guests so they can admit them at the gate.

Interestingly, although Gallaher uses the OpenTable app for reservations at Emilia, he says nothing beats having an experienced real live human on the front desk, with the authority to override the digital product.

“My door manager, Emily Aver, has taken over our reservations and has established a flawless system,” he said. “Computers are good at predicting table times, etcetera, but the human element is the most important. Emily knows guests that linger, guests that show up late and guests that just like to come in for a quick meal.”

He added, “If there’s a show at the Tennessee Theatre, she knows that our early tables will turn quickly. All those human habits that a computer reservation system can’t predict allow us to stay busy without compromising our guest experience.”

The newly opened location of Knox Mason is not yet on OpenTable. “We’re taking it a little slowly until we are confident in our systems, but we’ll get there,” Gallaher said. You can make a reservation by calling the restaurant at (865) 770-5988.

Martha Boggs, proprietor of Bistro at the Bijou, 807 S. Gay St., at the bar with Alan Carmichael.

There’s another option for customers when restaurants don’t accept reservations — an app that lets you virtually “get in line” at a “call ahead” restaurant and then notifies you when your table is almost ready. Called Yelp Waitlist (formerly NoWait), it has not been particularly effective for me.

Case in point: Recently, four of us wanted to eat at the super popular Stock & Barrel on Market Square, which does not take reservations. It was slammed when we arrived, and the folks at check-in recommended we use the Yelp Waitlist app. So we “got in line” on the app and went across Market Square to have a drink while we waited our turn. After nearly an hour, the app told us to head back to the Stock & Barrel. Guess what. When we got there, the front desk told us it would be another 70 minutes until our table was ready! Goodbye.

I think the bottom line is this. If a restaurant is so crowded that it does not have to take reservations, it may decide not to do it. But reservations are very important to many guests — especially when they have an event to get to or are having a business meeting.

Interior of Emilia.

I think restaurants who choose not to take reservations should keep in mind that Knoxville loves a new restaurant but that they may not always be as busy as they are in the beginning. And once customers forgo dining there due to a lack of reservations, it might be hard to get them back. That was the case for us with Tupelo Honey. Because they were so busy when they first opened, they didn’t accept reservations. Although I liked the restaurant and its food, I decided I couldn’t go there when I was having a business meeting because I couldn’t count on getting in.

Now that things have calmed down for them, they take reservations. I’m glad they do, but because I got out of the habit of going there, I rarely think of them when I’m trying to pick a spot for a business meal.

As much as I wish that all my favorite eateries took reservations, we customers have to remember that we have a responsibility, as well. If you make a reservation, you have an obligation to show up. If you must cancel, you should do it as much in advance as possible so the eatery has a chance to fill your table.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this typing has made me hungry … What’s your opinion about reservations?


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23 Responses to Reservations about reservations

  1. Katie Kline, on November 22nd, 2019 at 1:42 pm said:

    I prefer reservations. In most large cities, they call you to confirm you are coming in order to avoid no-shows. That may be harder to do here, but the call not only reminds me of the reservation, I also feel more committed and won’t cancel.

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on November 22nd, 2019 at 1:45 pm said:

    Katie: Excellent point.

  3. Scott Bird, on November 22nd, 2019 at 1:47 pm said:

    This topic is “comment bait” for me! I’m a huge reservations advocate, as someone who eats in restaurants for 98 percent of my meals.

    Availability of reservations through online tools like OpenTable, Resy and Tock is a major factor on whether I will dine at a particular restaurant because I don’t want to wait and/or want a particular table. Over the past seven days, I had in-town dinner reservations on five evenings, and that’s my norm. Also, particularly when I’m traveling, I don’t want to miss out on special/prized dining experiences by not reserving ahead. (For a five-day trip next week, I have booked eight dining reservations already. I will not go hungry.) That said, I’m a responsible diner and make cancellations and changes via the apps with as much lead time for the restaurants as possible.

  4. Becky Hancock, on November 22nd, 2019 at 1:56 pm said:

    I definitely prefer reservations for most types of places. It just helps both the diners and restaurant plan well. Shame on those who don’t cancel a reservation they cannot keep.

    Recently, we had friends visiting from Beaufort, South Carolina, and they were very interested in going to J.C. Holdway. I made a Friday night 8:30 reservation for 4. However, their drive time was severely elongated by horrible weather and the President’s motorcade in Columbia. Once we realized there was no way we’d make the reservation, I called at about 6:00 to cancel. I remember that the woman taking the call was very grateful I called to cancel. (It was a home football weekend, so hopefully they filled our table.)

    Not taking reservations when a new restaurant is busy seems counter-intuitive to me. If a place is that popular, wouldn’t you be able to seat some walk-ins, especially in a prime location with lots of foot traffic?

    BTW — We ended up taking our Beaufort friends to Sweet P’s downtown, ordering 15 minutes before their kitchen closed at 10PM. We all enjoyed delicious plates of BBQ!

  5. Cynthia Moxley, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:09 pm said:

    Scott: You are the best restaurant customer ever! I have no doubt that you do the right thing when it comes to reservations. If only everyone did the same.

    Becky: That’s a perfect example of how things can sometimes happen. But, by canceling as you did, you allowed the restaurant to fill the seat — and another customer to get a great meal. (We love Sweet P’s, as well.)

  6. Lucinda Denton, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:28 pm said:

    This might not be feasible with security and credit card fraud these days but it would be helpful for a guest to have secure reservations and for the restaurant to be assured there would not be a no-show if reservations could be made with a credit card number…..well in advance. This could be a non-refundable “deposit” and perhaps legally difficult to enforce. It is done with hotel and other property rentals so why not with restaurants? A two hour window to cancel would be realistic. If waiting in line is the only option, we have often chosen not to go/stay at a restaurant without reservations. Just thinking!!!!

  7. Cynthia Moxley, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:31 pm said:

    Lucinda: Actually, Chef Lenn mentioned that in larger cities restaurants often require a credit card number and tell you that you will be charged $25 per person for no shows. That seems fair to me.

  8. Daniel Andrews, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:32 pm said:

    I always skip the line. I simply walk up to the owner and say “Hi, my name is Alan Carmichael” and I get right in.

  9. Nicholas Cazana, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:33 pm said:

    It’s extra work however some restaurants call a day ahead or day of to confirm the reservation.

  10. Cynthia Moxley, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:33 pm said:

    Dan: Haha. Very funny. I wish it would work that way!

  11. Karyn Holbrook, on November 22nd, 2019 at 2:58 pm said:

    Like Daniel, I walk in and say, “Hi, my name is Cynthia Moxley” and I get the best seat in the house immediately. And then they pose to get their picture taken!

  12. Cynthia Moxley, on November 22nd, 2019 at 3:02 pm said:

    Karyn: Haha! Send me those pictures!

  13. Alan Carmichael, on November 22nd, 2019 at 3:15 pm said:

    Dan, there is an equal chance that using my name will get you in trouble! At the end of the day, dining establishments would be happy to have Dan Andrews as a customer.

  14. Rachel Ford, on November 22nd, 2019 at 4:56 pm said:

    I’m right there with the reservations people. A group of friends and I have had reservations recently at both Emilia and Kefi, with plans to hit Knox Mason soon! For busy people this is the best way to go.

  15. Gay Lyons, on November 22nd, 2019 at 4:57 pm said:

    I’m a big fan of reservations. I definitely prefer restaurants that take reservations. Shame on those no-shows! Who does that?!?! But I know those people are out there. The few times I’ve needed to cancel or adjust a reservation, the person taking the call is always so grateful.

  16. Scott Bird, on November 22nd, 2019 at 5:39 pm said:

    Lucinda and Cynthia: When traveling, I often pay a deposit for reservations at hot restaurants via OpenTable or prepay entirely for prix fixe dinners via Tock.

  17. Brian Tapp, on November 22nd, 2019 at 7:52 pm said:

    We almost always get reservations when heading out, especially on busy nights. People not showing up is ridiculous. Similar situation with people RSVP’ing for events and not showing or vice versa. Next column needs to be on RSVP etiquette! Keep up the good work.

  18. Diana Salesky, on November 22nd, 2019 at 11:18 pm said:

    Brian Tapp and I are thinking along exactly the same lines! When I read this wonderful blog (I’m in favor of reservations, by the way), my first thought was that this pertains to RSVPs as well. They are the bane of my existence! People don’t seem to understand the difference between RSVP and Regrets Only. Nor do certain folks feel any obligation to respond one way or another. Further, I’ve had people show up to events that didn’t bother to RSVP. My events are often on behalf of a non-profit, so having a good headcount can really save dollars!

  19. Cynthia Moxley, on November 23rd, 2019 at 9:09 am said:

    Brian and Diana: RSVPs are an issue, for sure. I actually touched on that subject in a post I wrote several years ago called, “How to get invited back.” Here’s a link to it:

  20. Sue Humble, on November 23rd, 2019 at 10:18 am said:

    I much prefer reservations because I don’t like to waste time waiting in line. Definitely must call to cancel a reservation.. I’ve been in large cities that require a credit card hold for no show..seems reasonable to me..I do like it when a restaurant texts with a message that we’re expected for our reservation in 1 hour..

  21. Eve Frazier, on November 23rd, 2019 at 12:19 pm said:

    Our experience with Citicos: On several occasions we tried to obtain reservations for 2 and were denied because we did not live in Windriver.

    In one occasion, I called a week ahead of time. On the second occasion I called two weeks in advance. On both occasions the young women (different female each time I called) who answered the phone kept telling me the restaurant was in a gated community (which I already knew). I kept asking for a dinner reservation and each time they would stall me by asking if I lived in Windriver. Basically, they did the stuck record routine to get me off the phone. The last time I asked the receptionist why the restaurant advertised on billboards in the area if they did not accept customers from outside the gate. She had no answer.

    Recently I was telling a group of friends about the experiences and they were not surprised. One even said Citicos was planning on officially only accepting diners from Windriver.

    In reality, they have had this practice for at least 2 years.

  22. Cynthia Moxley, on November 23rd, 2019 at 1:38 pm said:

    Hey, Sue: I agree with everything you said.

    Eve: That puzzles me. I have dined there numerous times – and I live in downtown Knoxville. It always has been brunch, though.

  23. Daniel Andrews, on November 23rd, 2019 at 2:47 pm said:

    How can I use my name when I keep putting all my meals on your tab?

    PS. you might want to avoid a couple of restaurants in Farragut!

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