Paid Reservations and the Spectacle of the Restaurant

Mission Chinese Food is the new theatre. Look at people vying to get into the hot restaurants like the hot Broadway shows or concerts. Think about the rise of the chef’s table and the allure of the perfectly plated dish. The celebrity chef has become a cultural icon and advertisers have begun to use fetishisized food images like fashion photography to induce desire. Perhaps the most indicative sign of this phenomenon is the rise of reservation scalping, or apps that sell reservations to the restaurant of the moment. In light of Priceline’s recent acquisition of Open Table — and this article published in The New York Times on 13 June 2014 — the restaurant’s space in society can be perceived as in flux. Restaurants are no longer limited to being either an exclusive French dining experience or a cheap neighbourhood locale that welcomes everyone. They’ve become an amalgamation of the two: everyone can come, as long are you’re willing to sacrifice for entry. Until recently you relinquished several hours of your time to the phone or computer in the name of the dining Gods. Now, it’s knowing your way around the reservation black market. Some restaurants are understandably upset at these companies as they limit access. If you’re willing to pay even more than an already pricey meal, you can get in. If not, wait on the street or stay at home. The restaurant is no longer accessible; it’s reserved for those who want a rock-concert meal experience. As diners resort to inflated techniques for getting the perfect table we need to ask ourselves: why do we dine out? Are we going out for good food, to try something new, or to say we’ve been to the popular spot and tick off a box on society’s cool checklist? Frighteningly, the signs suggest the latter. A particular table and the vantage point it gives us shouldn’t impact our enjoyment of the restaurant, but apparently it does. Waiting for a hot reservation should be thought of as a shared experience and using our quickest fingers to dial the restaurant a rite of passage, but they’re not. Add to this our ever-increasing bond with indispensable iPhones and these new apps reveal how getting a reservation at an ‘in’ restaurant asserts your participation in foodie-aware, tech-savvy culture. While it’s understandable that people would give into the temptation to simplify the reservation process, the process is unfair to restaurants and other diners. The dream restaurant isn’t the one that Pete Wells wrote about glowingly last week. Nor is it the one with hipster cheap food. Instead the perfect restaurant is an abstract space where unique food, stimulating company and a pleasant atmosphere merge. Allowing apps and paid reservations to dictate where we dine threatens to destabilize this trinity, change the restaurant’s social meaning from meeting place to untouchable theatre. Some argue that these apps make getting a good table at an interesting restaurant more democratic. Anyone who has tried to dine at the now-closed Mission Chinese knows you’re out of luck, unless you go as soon as they open or for lunch. Goodness knows getting a seat at Blanca isn’t be easy. These reservation systems allow people who may not otherwise be able to get a table to finagle their way into the hottest restaurants, theoretically making the dining world a more democratic space. Unfortunately, the need to pay, download an app and hoodwink a restaurant negates the benefits. Rather than interacting with the restaurant and negotiating with potential fellow diners, pressing a few buttons on our phone further divorces diners from the restaurant’s participatory atmosphere. If we’re not willing to accept a wait or not getting in, why are we dining out at all? A hard-to-get reservation doesn’t indicate quality. It merely tells us that lots of people are interested in a place. As the restaurant becomes an increasingly theatrical space the food quality will suffer. Paying excess attention to the perfect reservation diverts our focus from the meal. Do we want to foster an environment where it’s more important to consume hype than to appreciate thoughtful food? Eating at a top restaurant at 8 pm —the prime seating according to Open Table  — says nothing about the meal. Restaurants shouldn’t be reduced to spectacle, but should be lauded as a participatory experience. When we’re eating at a new restaurant we’re in dialogue with the space, with the chef, with the individual cooks, with our fellow diners and with the people who grew the food on our plate. Streamlining the process through an app threatens to remove and reduce this dialogue to a one-sided, money-driven observation.

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