How to Get Into a Sold-Out Restaurant

Wendy Perrin lists several approaches for getting into sold out restaurants.

Here’s my interpretation of her suggestions:

  • Be flexible. OpenTable will show you the next available reservation, so go when the place isn’t sold out. But OpenTable also won’t show all available, restaurants often withhold peak times from the booking service so be sure to call directly, too, and ask them when you might get in.
  • Have a concierge service call for you. There are the premium credit card versions, American Express Platinum and Centurion also have some set-aside reservation agreements with some restaurants. Their concierge services aren’t the equal of the truly high-end membership concierge offerings, and I’ve had truly mixed results with such concierge services actually even calling to try, but it can’t hurt to multi-process — have them attempt while you do, and many one of you is successful.
  • Have your hotel’s concierge try. Send your hotel an email when you make your booking with the reservations you want, or even last minute. Some hotels will have pull.
  • Technology. notifies when tables open up, publishes last minute availability, as does @LastMinuteEatin.
  • Call at the cancellation deadline. Restaurants that re-confirm bookings, or that take a credit card with bookings, will often see tables open up at their cancellation deadline. They may have a waitlist already (which you should be on) but it could be worth a call, too.
  • Just show up. Some restaurants will serve their same menu at the bar. Others have a reputation for never turning away a diner if they can help it and will try to find a way to squeeze you in (though it may be a wait). Gary Danko in San Francisco at least used to be that way (I haven’t checked to see if it’s still true there). Before choosing this time-intensive option you’ll want to know the restaurant’s practices, but for many places it works.

I’ve gotten into some of the world’s toughest reservations, like El Bulli and The Fat Duck. The secret there wasn’t to try to get into them once they had sold out, but to research in advance how they allocate reservations and be prepared to follow best practices.

When El Bulli was the toughest ‘get’ in the world, with something like 10,000 requests per table, I emailed on the one day a year when reservations are accepted. I knew that the key was getting in early on the first day, and that early meant the restaurant’s local time rather than mine — so I even timed the email. I didn’t get in the first year I tried, so I replied to their rejection a year later figuring showing my seriousness of interest and persistence couldn’t hurt.

For the Fat Duck it was a matter of calling right when they opened to take reservations, the day bookings opened for the day I wanted. I could have taken the next day, so if it didn’t work on my first try I would have tried again a day later.

But in those cases the restaurants hadn’t sold out yet, as I say.

Interesting to note that none of these techniques even involve tipping, at least directly. You’ll tip the concierge who gets you the booking for sure. And if you’re comfortable, tipping when you ‘just show up’ could help. But it’s not even a central part of the strategy.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I would rank hotel concierge higher than other concierge services, just because they have the local connections and relationships. In addition, it doesn’t hurt to call the morning of when you want to go – that’s how I got a party of 4 into Babbo.

    Then again, all of these tips don’t work at hip Brooklyn restaurants where they don’t take reservations.

  2. Amex actually got me into Lotus of Siam in Vegas 20 minutes after the restaurant flat out told me no, it wasn’t happening tonight.

  3. Another trick is to call right after the restaurant calls to confirm reservations — usually 11a same day works wonders

  4. I have a low tolerance for pretentiousness, and if some restaurant is that difficult to get a table at, I have no interest in eating there. Life is too short to waste much effort of getting a frickin table for dinner, and there’s great food available everywhere – usually the food is just as good (if not better) and much less expensive at less hoity-toity places where you don’t have to sleep with someone just to get a table. If your life revolves around getting “the toughest get in the world” you might want to re-examine your priorities. A sandwich is just a sandwich (and in a few hours, it’s something else entirely – a little perspective to remember).

    That said, I have had very good luck with hotel concierge desks being able to book tickets for me at major tourist attractions in foreign cities that were “sold out” on the one day I would be able to go (e.g. tickets to The Alhambra in Spain). They can save your bacon if you fail to plan adequately. I wouldn’t count on that, but it’s worth trying.

    But trading a kidney just so I can dine at the latest hipster foodie fetish shrine? No thanks, you can have my seat. I’ll be down the street at the little place without all the attitude.

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