The Hardest Places to Score Reservations


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (TheStreet) -- Some are new and others have been around for a food generation, but they're all the toughest restaurant reservations in America. But before you start trying to crack through Opentable and secure a table online, many of the hottest restaurants aren't even on the site -- at least not yet. Instead, many of the nation's hottest chefs are devising innovative booking policies of their own that could prove a wider trend for America's hottest restaurants.

In New York, old standards such as Thomas Keller's Per Se atop the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle and Boulud's eternal, epnoymous Upper East Side Daniel, with its Adam Tihany-designed interiors, are consistently a tough reservation to snag after all these years, with weekend and Thursday nights being predictably the toughest to book. Persistent Opentable users will be most successful booking at least a week in advance or calling the restaurants directly for prime time slots, such as 7:30 or 8 p.m., that are sometimes restricted from the Opentable site by the restaurants.

In Tribeca at the Greenwich Hotel, Locanda Verde occupies the restaurant spot quickly vacated by Ago following terrible reviews and lackluster business -- and, unlike Ago, is a sure-fire hit. When asked about a reservation at 7:30 on any night, the attendant advises, "That's our most coveted reservation time and usually fills up 30 days in advance when the time slots are released." Guests come in search of the cozy, chic, celebrity-filled air fragranced by the work of Chef Andrew Carmellini, former chef at Cafe Boulud, who uses sophisticated French cooking techniques on feel-good northern Italian fair.

In Los Angeles, one of the most coveted dining reservations is at the well-known Chateau Marmont. On a recent first attempt to make a reservation, the attendant insisted that the restaurant is for hotel guests only and suggested instead the neighboring Bar Marmont. A second try and friendlier host at another hour, however, got offers of various time slots and a promise that "We'll put in a request for the terrace but can't guarantee it." Famous faces are always seated outside, illustrating the pointlessness of showing up without a reservation. The astute door lady has a list of everyone staying at the hotel as well as booked into the restaurant, so walk-ins are essentially impossible after dark. (A famous face helps. Bring a celebrity.)

Another new L.A. restaurant hasn't even published a phone number yet, let alone started to accept reservations: the much-anticipated and mysterious Il Covo. It's Sean MacPherson, also an owner of the Bowery Hotel and New York's Waverly Inn, who has revamped the former Orso near West Hollywood and run a successful soft opening around construction taking the space from Under the Tuscan Sun to moody Victorian mansion with a gothic flair. The soft opening's lunch service has been mostly by invitation, and there's been hushed dinner service and private parties as well.

Nearby, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of the Food Network's 2 Dudes Catering have followed up the success of their L.A. restaurant Animal with Son of a Gun. An impossible reservation to snag on any day, the compact restaurant is in a familiar space on L.A.'s Third Street that looks like the dining room of a summertime Boy Scout camp. Reservation requests are usually greeted with "How about 5:30 p.m.?" but you can try arriving in the early evening and scouting out a spot at the communal table, which is always on a first-come basis. You can forget scouring Opentable for cancellations. Neither of the chefs' hit restaurants are using the service.

Another restaurant bucking the Opentable trend is San Francisco's new Locanda Osteria by Craig and Anne Stoll, co-owners of Pizzeria Delfina in the Mission District. The cozy, anti-glam space offers innovative Roman cuisine and bar and plans to stay open till 1 a.m. -- a rarity in the area. The owners are using an online reservation system called Rez by UrbanSpoon that allows customers to immediately see available reservations in a pull-down screen on the actual restaurant website, versus Opentable's system of having to enter requested time and submit to a central booking system.

But perhaps the biggest restaurant opening of 2011 is in Chicago, where three-star Michelin Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea has debuted the aptly named Next Restaurant. The restaurant got more than 20,000 inquiries before opening for its new payment system, which has customers buying in advance for the entire meal, gratuity and add-ons such as standard or reserve wine pairings. Getting a ticket, however, is near to impossible; only a select number of applicants got confirmation, which some re-sold on Craigslist -- tickets to Next Restaurant are transferable but not refundable. The process will likely eliminate no-shows, but diners are still asked to show up 15 minutes in advance of their reservations and tell the restaurant if they're running late.

Next Restaurant is also innovative in its rotating menu, inspired by Paris 1906 and the cuisine of Escoffier at the Ritz. It's a culinary sonnet of turtle soup, seared foie gras and breast of duck that unfolds as foodie zealots sneak iPhone shots and tweet to jealous friends.

Next to Next, Achatz has debuted a "Cocktail kitchen" called The Aviary that puts a molecular gastronomic spin on the classic lounge bar with its bite-size food pairings for drinks that mimic flavors such as hot chocolate and truffles. Those that expect to just arrive and be seated, however, are confronted with multihour waits for the first-come seating and doorman small talk. At the opening, some people waited six hours to get in.

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