My first job was a hostess at Outback Steakhouse.
True to their “No Rules Just Right” tagline (alternative tagline: “Home of the Bloomin’ Onion: more calories than a person should consume in a month”), Outback didn’t take reservations.
People would line up outside the door at opening, and there would be a steady stream of steak lovers trickling in until closing time.
Friday and Saturday nights the wait for a table would sometimes be up to three hours, the front lobby jam-packed with folks patiently waiting for their turn to sit. It seemed every weekend we got a little busier and our customers’ patience wore a little thinner, so the company instituted a new policy called “Call Ahead Seating.” Under this policy, folks could call in an hour before they wanted to dine and, while a table wouldn’t be reserved for them, their name would be put at the top of the wait list. This is a policy that Outback still uses today.
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Nearly every restaurant I have worked at since my Outback days has taken reservations, and the cooler (and less corporate) the restaurant, the smaller the space, and the larger the need to make a reservation has become. It is my belief that the closer you get to downtown, the more you need a reservation. In the hip Oregon District where I hosted some five years ago, it wasn’t our official company policy, but a reservation was basically a requirement if you wanted to eat before 11 p.m. I lost count of the wide-eyed expressions I would get in a night: “You mean, you can’t seat my party of 10 right away?”
But why is it so important to make a reservation?
I asked a few downtown restaurateurs that very question, and they all echoed the same thing idea: making a reservation makes your experience as a diner all the better.
Owner and General Manager of Corner Kitchen Natalie Skilliter believes that taking reservations is simply a matter of traffic.
“I think so much of developing a reservation policy is determined by your location and the amount of foot traffic you can expect to see,” she said.
Skilliter, who has worked in both resort towns and big cities, has had no problem filling seats in the Oregon District where, especially in the summer, foot traffic is at its prime.
>> FIRST LOOK: Corner Kitchen, the Oregon District’s new “finer diner”
Similarly, Lily’s Bistro continues to drive in diners with the appeal of their beautiful patios. GM Emily Mendenhall underscores the importance of making reservations due to restaurant size.
“A lot of independent restaurants have very, very small kitchens,” she said. “The things that people love that separate us from chain restaurants, like made-from-scratch menu items cooked to order and served in a historic building, are also the things that contribute to a limited number of guests we can seat and longer wait times.”
Many area restaurants like Meadowlark in Washington Twp. and Wheat Penny in the Oregon District will take reservations for larger parties, giving the restaurant staff a heads up on how much food to prep and how to better space out their walk-in customers.
What’s an exception to the rules? The Pine Club. Since 1947 they have been serving guests without accepting reservations, even for the President himself. Recently my husband and I popped in there for a bite. Thinking we were missing the dinner crowd, we showed up at 9:30 and waited for a table for 2 hours. “I think I better order a martini, so I can at least eat a few olives while we wait” I said. “Oh yeah, gin-soaked olives,” he responded. “That’ll really tide you over.”
Moral of the story? Make a reservation whenever you can. With Mother’s Day Brunch on the horizon, people will be coming out to eat all over the region. If you happen to forget, fingers crossed the restaurant has olives to keep your stomach from growling.