Let me in, please
By Kathleen Parramore
There was a time when we could have a drink at home and then walk to our favorite restaurants. Then, as Charleston became a more popular destination and dining spot, we had to adjust to making reservations. Now, reservations must be made a month in advance, and we are often forced to enjoy either very late or very early eating times.
Our city continues to be a mecca for tourists seeking world-class cuisine. But locals are pushed to ask, “Who comes first — us or them?”
For the eighth straight year, Travel and Leisure has cited us as the “Best City in the U.S.” and “18th Best City in the World to Visit.” Charleston is listed as one of the ten best food cities in the country. We offer classic Southern food, Lowcountry cuisine and barbecue. We have the finest seafood, award-winning chefs and innovative kitchens. Charleston continues to add James Beard nominees, notables and winners every year.
And yet I’m sure we’ve all heard (and said!) this common refrain: “I live here and I cannot get into these restaurants.”
I did a small survey asking managers and owners about their procedures and policies for reservations, keeping in mind the above challenge. Some refrained from participating, but those who did gave me some insight into the challenges they encounter in trying to make us all happy.
COVID-19, of course, created a major hurdle and sometimes an insurmountable roadblock simply to keep doors open and staff employed. In addition to wavering business, many restaurants struggled and continue to struggle with changing kitchen protocols, changing rules, addressing fears of customers and staff and complying with CDC guidelines.
But it is safe to say that we are roaring back! New restaurants are opening. Locals are sick of eating their own food, relying on the same staple meals night after night. Tourists are back and excited to be traveling, eating and drinking in our glorious city.
Vivian Howard’s new place, Lenior, is a popular spot given her celebrity status as a restaurateur, award-winning chef and PBS host of “A Chef’s Life.” Lenior has bar seats that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. FIG, another James Beard Award winner, offers bar seats on the same basis.
In its new(ish) location on King Street, 167 Raw — one of my personal favorites — takes a bit of planning to enjoy. They do not accept reservations. I can personally attest, though, that their oysters are as good before noon as they are at 7:30 p.m. 167 Raw is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and they do not close the kitchen anytime during the day. That is a lot of hours of oyster shucking, folks! Such a timing window also allows for lots of meal opportunities. They will take your number and give you a time you can expect to be called … and they are very good at getting the timing right. While you’re waiting, you have time for a walk, a glass of wine somewhere or just a casual visit to the many galleries in the neighborhood. The management is also flexible after you are called to show up. Long lines outside can confirm: Impeccable customer service and exceptional food quality seem to be a recipe for success.
The lobster roll is a staple on the 167 Raw menu, which changes frequently to reflect local and seasonal specials. Image by Emily Havener.
Keep in mind, restaurants are dealing with more than COVID-19 and hard-to-find workers. People who blow off the reservations they make are a major headache to an ongoing operation that must pivot at each turn. When two show up for reservations for four, it causes a major rearrangement. Then, there are the no-shows and last-minute cancellations. Opentable will knock someone off its system after four no-shows, but what happens when people keep two or more email addresses to make as many reservations as possible? These types of bad habits make it difficult to book other reservations, and they keep customers at the bar waiting too long past their own reservation time, adding to the challenges of delivering the best customer experience.
As a result, more restaurants are opening or moving toward a no-reservation policy. A recent article on Butcher & Bee noted half of all reservations for Mother’s Day were no-shows. They are now charging a fee for no-shows, with others soon to follow. Most restaurants are on shoestring margins, and no-shows could make the difference between red or black ink. Some restaurants are using a prepaid reservation, but this model has yet to reach the Charleston market. Smaller restaurants dealing with a more fickle customer base have even less leverage and more risk.
David Chang of Momofuku in New York cites this no-reservation policy as a way of paying homage to the food experience ... perhaps more democratic? Lack of pretension? Walk-in only policies certainly change the dining hierarchy, as it’s no longer based on whom you know. A walk-in policy fixes the problem of no-shows and is a more profitable model; it seems to work best for small and midsize establishments. Though walk-in only is becoming more popular, it has alienated the senior citizen population and parents with sitters on the clock. The older generation has deep pockets and likes the table to be waiting. Perhaps a hybrid reservation policy would satisfy some of the issues.
Maybe it’s also time to rate customers, like the Uber model. Right now there is little punishment for bad behavior; and remember, bad behavior affects all of us. Let’s keep our restaurants open and busy, but let’s also behave ourselves so we can make a reservation and so our restaurants are happy to seat us locals!
After 25 years in the technology field, Kathleen Parramore earned an MSc in nutrition from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and then a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech. She is a writer, consultant and dinner party caterer in the Charleston area.