Should Restaurants Take Reservations?

Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
Situated on the second floor of Philadelphia's historic Provident Bank Building, Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse is part of a four-unit operation based in Boston. The restaurant features regional Italian foods with a focus on the grill, including the natural New York strip steak ($42) and hand-rolled potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms and truffle oil ($26). The restaurant recommends reservations, says general manager Ettore Ceraso.
When Mick Salyer launched a tapas and paella restaurant, Zuzu, a decade ago, there weren't many eateries in downtown Napa, California. But with tourists continuing to flock in, the town became a dining destination. Zuzu offers a menu inspired by fresh, organic ingredients in modern California (crispy skin local striped bass with purple cauliflower, $12) and the Mediterranean (paella del dia, $10 a person), but it does not take reservations.
What is the reason for your reservations policy?
It's easier. We have taken reservations since we opened here 12 years ago. Back then, people would call for reservations, but now about 50 percent are online. We say that reservations are recommended because we get very busy at times, but they are not required. We also have a beautiful bar and full menu there, and some walk-in guests enjoy that rather than waiting for a table. It's all part of a balance.
We wanted to be a neighborhood place, where people could stop in, and we never thought we'd get many tourists. It was always going to be very casual, just come in and eat, so we didn't really want reservations. We're not very big and not fancy, and it's a little tight [49 seats] here. Not taking reservations creates a type of equality, knowing everyone has to wait. It's created this fun and festive atmosphere.
How has that worked?

The benefits of reservations have been very good. We are able to space out the guests and give them the service and ambiance that we promise. We hold certain slots for our regular customers who come in at the last minute. The reservation system helps us recognize returning guests and lets us know if there is a special occasion. We track their visits, their allergies, anything to alert our servers to make the guests feel welcome and special.

It's worked very well for what we do. There are advantages. We don't need a person taking reservations, we don't have to deal with open tables because people don't show up, it allows people to be spontaneous and it rounds off the corners of the day. We get full around 6 p.m., so some people know to arrive earlier. We get a few people who are out wine tasting all day and just want nibbles, so they'll also stop by early.

Have there been any problems resulting from the policy?

Like any [restaurant] that has reservations, there are issues when [guests] don't come on time or don't show, particularly on busy days. But we know people sometimes are late. It happens. If they are caught in traffic, we hope they call to let us know, and we can work with that. Even if they don't, we try to fit them in. How we deal with these issues can be the difference between a good experience and a great one.

Reservations can be a good indication for staffing, but this isn't a big concern for us. We know a wait can make people grumpy, because they're hungry and want to eat, and that can be a downside. We try to keep things lively and friendly for them. If we get a big group or large crowd that comes in early, that doesn't help with flow issues. Although I think we've learned how to handle it.