American dining culture is becoming even less European as early-bird eating habits established during the pandemic may be here to stay. Shake Shack founder and Union Square Hospitality Group chairman Danny Meyer recently mused on X (formerly Twitter) that 6 p.m. is “the new” 8 p.m.—or most-prized time of the night—for dinner reservations. But is it true, and will it last?
In a new report studying fine-dining restaurants, Placer.ai analyzed The Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Cooper’s Hawk, Saltgrass Steak House, Fogo de Chão, and Eddie V’s Prime Seafood to determine if Meyer’s claim had any merit. Their conclusion? He’s “spot on.”
THE STUDY: The report analyzed visit trends by hour between June and August 2023 at six prominent fine-dining chains, and compared it to the same period in 2019 to look for differences.
THE FINDING: Per the report: “Across the board, our visitation data suggests that fine dining patrons are dining earlier—especially between 4-7 p.m.—and coming in less frequently after 8 p.m.”
THE WHY: The report notes the primary drivers of the shift are work-from-home trends, a blurring of work and personal schedules, and a “Netflix effect,” where there is more entertainment content people look forward to watching.
The report also suggests an increase in schedule flexibility plays a part, giving people more time to dine at different times. Placer.ai’s August Office Index recap found office visits are at about 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, which means employees have freed up time on their morning and evening commutes.
Additionally, fine-dining restaurants typically skew toward urban settings, which initially saw pandemic population declines. But more recently, larger cities like New York are experiencing an urban residential recovery driven by millennial and Gen Z households with younger families—which, in turn, drives up more demand for earlier dining times.
The peak dining time may actually be as early as 5 p.m. at New York restaurants. According to data pulled from Resy, reservations across New York City made at 5:30 p.m. have jumped from 7.75 percent over 2020 and 2021 to 8.31 percent in 2022. And 8 p.m. reservations fell to just 7.8 percent of the total dinner reservations in the city, down from 8.31 percent.
In Yelp’s 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, it was reported 10 percent of all diners were seated between 2 to 5 p.m. this year, which doubled from 5 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Reservations at 4 p.m. more than doubled from 2 percent in 2019 to 5 percent in 2023.
So, does all this mean 9 p.m. is the new midnight? Since many restaurants shortened their hours during the pandemic and never extended their hours again due to labor challenges, it seems the industry is trending in that direction. Dining early also helps restaurants meet the bottom line, online restaurant-reservation service company Resy reports. Meanwhile, some think dining early has always been a part of U.S. culture, which has less of a late-night crowd than countries like Greece, Germany, Spain, and others in South America.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean other concepts aren’t trying to capitalize on late-night bites. For example, late-night is a valuable daypart for Big Whiskey’s American Restaurant & Bar, and accounts for around 6-8 percent of the casual-dining chain’s total sales.
“After a few years of not meeting up at 10 p.m. during the pandemic, people are starting to come back to late-night,” Paul Sundy, co-founder and COO of the Missouri-based franchise which just surpassed 10 locations, told FSR.
Diner chain Norms Restaurants also recently added a new late-night menu as part of a broader strategy to get back to 24/7 operations. Diner chains like Norms, Perkins, IHOP, Denny’s, and other casual spots have an opportunity to take a bigger share of the late-night pie as more upscale concepts continue to scale back their hours.