Taste: Do You Have Reservations?

IT USED TO BE THAT RESTAURANTS either took reservations, or they didn’t. There was either a table available, or there wasn’t — unless you were Someone, of course. But lately, reservation policies have become as hard to parse as the ingredient list on a can of Cheez Whiz at Jim’s, where, at least, the reservations policy is easy: Stand in line.

Sure, we accept reservations, a Center City hostess will say to a hopeful diner — only Tuesday through Thursday (off-Rittenhouse BYOB Melograno), only before 6 p.m. (the Gayborhood’s Italian-ish Mercato), only for parties of 12 or more (Washington Square’s comfort-foodery Jones), only up to two months in advance (ever-popular Buddakan in Old City), and only if you leave a credit-card number (Spruce Street haute Italian Vetri).

The policy at Vetri, which accepts reservations up to two months in advance, requires a credit-card number and signature for parties of more than four. There’s a $50-a-head fee for no-shows. And yes, owner Marc Vetri has imposed the fee — a relative bargain for the no-shows, considering the tasting menu starts at $90 and a bottle of wine can run you twice that much. After all, restaurants are businesses, and an empty table held for MIA diners is money lost. “Some people complain,” Vetri says, “but it’s usually the people who are most reluctant to give their credit cards that are going to be no-shows.”

Restaurateurs say no-show diners are becoming an increasing problem in the city. Palm general manger Jim Haney, who accepts reservations the old-fashioned way — every day, all day, for anyone, on the honor system — estimates that number at a full 10 percent of reservations, up from about five percent just a few years ago. “Diners are becoming more brazen,” Haney says, trying to explain the reservation-happy practices of the City That Eats at Seven. Simply, diners call around town making reservations until they find somewhere they can eat at seven o’clock. The result: fewer open reservations for the rest of us.

This increase in diner absenteeism is partly responsible for the sudden attention to reservation policies, but restaurants in our ever-more-crowded dining scene also view these sometimes-quirky reservation policies as a way to define themselves. At BYOB Mercato, which accepts reservations only for the early-bird pre-theater crowd, the vibe is “neighborhood.” “Our reservation policy promotes a more social atmosphere. Waiting for the tables to turn promotes conversation between diners,” says Danielle Powell, the restaurant’s promotions director. (Plus — business again — the restaurant can turn the tables more often, seating a second party as soon as the first has finished.) Meanwhile, at BYOB Marigold Kitchen, in a residential West Philly neighborhood, the vibe is “fine dining.” Accepting reservations is an essential part of that image. Asking patrons to treat their BlackBerrys as chain-­restaurant-style beepers while they wait in Rittenhouse Square for a table at Rouge is not.

And technology promises even more changes in the city’s dining dynamic, with services like OpenTable.com, which allows users to book tables at about 200 area restaurants online, and PrimeTimeTables.com. The membership-based Prime Time Tables, essentially a table-scalping service, has launched in New York and is eyeing expansion into other markets like Philadelphia, promising those coveted seven o’clock ­reservations — with a $450 annual membership and a $25 to $50 per-reservation fee.