The Waiting Game 

Taking—and making—dinner reservations is a tricky business in Nashville

Taking—and making—dinner reservations is a tricky business in Nashville

It’s 7:30 on a Saturday night. Do you know where your dinner reservation is? If you thought about it on Tuesday and called your favorite restaurant to request the coveted time slot, then you may be sailing past the cluster of unhappy people at the front door waiting two hours for a table. If not, you’re beginning to think takeout might not be a bad idea.

”Everybody in Nashville wants to eat dinner at 7:30 on Saturday night,“ says Craig Clift, general manager and wine director at Sunset Grill, the popular Hillsboro Village eatery that recently acquired the upscale Midtown Cafe. ”We begin taking reservations early in the week for the weekend. By the end of the week, we are totally booked for Friday and Saturday between 6:30 and 8:30. Unfortunately, most people don’t start thinking about where and when they want to eat until Friday afternoon, and by then it’s probably too late to get the time they want.“

To take or not to take reservations, that is the question every restaurateur faces sooner or later. It’s a dilemma, according to Rick Bolsam, who with wife Vicki is a principal in a restaurant that does takes reservations (Zola), one that doesn’t (Tin Angel), and one that isn’t yet sure (the soon-to-open Mirror on 12th Avenue South). ”[There’s] no one good answer,“ he says. ”It can be a two-sided road to nowhere.“

When opening a restaurant, the reservations policy is given serious consideration, right up there with food, decor, style of service, and accouterments. ”In the planning process, you are making decisions that say who you are, what kind of restaurant you are,“ Bolsam says. ”When you take reservations, your restaurant operates in a completely different mode than one that doesn’t. If you have a restaurant that is considered expensive, or that is quite large, then taking reservations is the smart and right thing to do. If you are a medium-sized or moderately priced restaurant, one that’s trying to appeal to people in a casual way, then you probably wouldn’t take reservations.“

Adhering to that formula, in the reservations-accepted category are the Nashville restaurants you’d expect to find: Wild Boar, Zola, Sunset, F. Scott’s, The Trace, Atlantis, Bound’ry, Cafe 123, Cafe Lylla, Clayton-Blackmon—A Bistro, Morton’s, Mad Platter. There are the casual, neighborhood eateries that don’t accept reservations: Tin Angel, Houston’s, O’Charley’s, J. Alexander’s, Bosco’s, South Street, Cooker. Then there are the in-betweens. Sasso, for example, isn’t very large, or very expensive, but it is located in East Nashville. It’s a little off the beaten path for some West Nashville diners, who want to be sure they’ll have a table waiting before they commit to the trek across the river.

Midtown Cafe is in the expensive category, and very small, with just 20 tables. Clift notes that on weekends, people won’t bother coming to Midtown without a reservation, assuming a lengthy wait is in store for walk-ins. The previous owners did not accept reservations for after 8 p.m. on weekends; when Sunset Grill purchased the restaurant, it changed that policy and has doubled the dinner business on Friday and Saturday nights. Caffe Nonna in Sylvan Park is a small, moderately priced neighborhood restaurant that initially declined to take reservations. But its remarkable popularity forced the proprietors to rethink this policy, and Caffe Nonna is now in the reservations-accepted category—which has pleased some customers and annoyed others.

”Whatever you do, someone is likely to get upset,“ Bolsam says wryly. ”In a perfect world, everything would be perfect. But the world isn’t perfect.“

But if you are a once-a-month restaurant diner, and you have gone to the trouble of getting a babysitter, or you are celebrating a special occasion, you want the evening to be as close to perfect as you can get it. So what to do?

If you are absolutely dead-set on eating at 7:30, call early; Monday afternoon is not too soon. By Wednesday, Clift notes, Midtown is close to full for the weekend, and Sunset is filling up quickly.

Be flexible. ”You’d be surprised how many people refuse to take a 7:45 reservation when I tell them 7 is full,“ Clift says. ”If you are calling late in the week for a weekend night, ask the restaurant what time they can take you.“

Go early. A reservation at 6 p.m. almost guarantees you’ll be getting the check by 7, and right on time for the 7:30 movie. Or think European and go late. If you are going with a group, make the reservation for 8 or 8:30 and meet at someone’s house for cocktails before heading to the restaurant.

Once you make the reservation, either keep it or call to cancel. ”No-shows are a big problem,“ Clift says. ”We average a $30- to $35-per-person check. If I have 50 no-shows, that can be close to $2,000.“ Bolsam adds that no-shows can be disastrous for a small, expensive restaurant that doesn’t get many walk-in customers. ”It also hurts the server. If they only have three tables in their station, and a reservation for eight doesn’t show up, they’ve lost a good chunk of their income for that night.“

In other words, don’t make Nashville restaurants adopt a policy increasingly common in larger metropolitan areas: When making a reservation, you must give your credit card number; if you don’t show, you are charged a fee, usually around $25 per person. ”We’re not going to get mad at you if you call to cancel, even it you call at 7 to cancel a 7:30 reservation,“ Clift says. ”It helps me figure out my room, and I may be able to give that table to a walk-in.“

Figuring out the room is a science at places like Sunset, which has 68 tables; those tables are further divided into several different areas. Though reservations are taken manually over the telephone, from there Clift uses a computer program called ProHost. The program has a layout of every table in Sunset; once your party is seated, the time is recorded, and your table is colored red on the computer screen. Throughout the evening, Clift and his staff keep track of every table. Once the check is presented, the table on the screen turns blue; when the check is cashed out, the table turns green and Clift knows he has space coming up.

While restaurants love to have your business, a table that dawdles an hour over coffee on a busy Saturday night is a problem. Again, New York restaurants have resorted to drastic measures. A recent story in The New York Times dining section was titled ”Bon Appetit. Now Get Out!“ It noted that along with ”No Smoking“ and ”No Cell Phones“ signs, some Manhattan restaurants are adhering, if not so publicly, to one more admonishment: ”No Loitering.“ In some cases, diners are told their time is up and presented with the check, whether or not it was requested.

That isn’t likely to happen here, but good manners have their rewards. On a recent Saturday evening around 6:30, a couple came to Sunset Grill without a reservation and asked for a table, promising they would be on their way by 7:30. Clift agreed to the terms, though he said he has often been burned in the past by diners who claim temporary possession as ownership. This particular couple, however, were true to their word; at 7:20 they asked for the check and at 7:30 they stopped at the door to thank Clift for fitting them in. In return, he handed them his card, which included a free dinner for two on a return visit. ”Customers like that can just really make your night, and you want to make sure to thank them for it.“

Grape-line

Hoyt Hill, former restaurateur and sommelier extraordinaire, and current owner of Village Wines & Liquors, is one of Nashville’s most knowledgeable oenophiles. His Web site is full of tips and relevant articles he has read. You can find it at http://www.villagewines.com.

He has just been tapped by cnn.com to serve as its resident wine authority. In that capacity, he answers questions online and will be writing a weekly column. His Web site will also serve as the official wine page for cnn.com.

Gone Fishin'

Taking a tip from its European counterparts, Caffe Nonna is closed for a one-week vacation and will reopen Monday, June 5, for dinner. Martini’s, in the former NY Bagel location on West End Avenue, is no longer serving lunch.

What’s Cookin’?

Got a no-fail recipe for banana puddin’? As part of its Cooking Across America series, Golden West Publishers is offering Tennessee residents, businesses, and organizations the opportunity to have one or more of their favorite recipes included in the forthcoming Tennessee Cook Book. All published contributors will receive a free copy of the book. For recipe submission forms or more information, contact Golden West at 4113 N. Longview, Phoenix, Ariz., 85014. Phone: 1-800-658-5830; fax: 1-602-279-6901; e-mail: goldwest//www.goldenwestpublishers.com.

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