"Let Me Tell You" is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They are published every week. Last month, Food & Drink Editor and Critic Amber Sutherland-Namako argued that Mallomars are NYC’s best fall flavor.
Several months ago on a clammy spring night, I was running on time to a restaurant reservation, until I was running late.
Not to worry, my husband texted, he was seated at the bar. Seated, I asked back, or waiting? The former, he replied, and was that not right? It wasn’t, but I’d sort it out when I got there, my cold sweat turning hot.
Everyone at Justine’s on Hudson was very nice, and one staffer explained that even though I had not booked dinner at the bar—an increasingly common possibility at restaurants across reservation platforms—they simply did not distinguish between seating assignments here. It only took a moment to be relocated to a plush banquette, in any case, and the food and wine were wonderful.
Today, Justine’s offers “bar,” “dining” and “dining room” sections on Resy. This is a probable improvement over Resy roulette, though, petite as it is, it isn’t clear what the difference between the second two might be.
"The reservations platforms are a struggle in more ways than one on both sides of the system," a representative for Justine's on Hudson says.
"When we opened Justine's it was important to Chef Jordan that everyone received the same experience, regardless of where they were seated—that is why we did not differentiate in our small dining room. Now, several months in, with more recognition (and more photo references/reviews to lead first time diners) we aim to accommodate more informed specific seating choices," the rep says. A follow-up asking to further detail delineations was not immediately answered at press time.
Recently scanning availability at Hawksmoor, one of NYC’s best steakhouses, and one with a chateaubriand that I cannot stop thinking about, there were early slots labeled as “experiences.” Clicking through: the options to choose “bar,” “counter,” “high top” and “standard.” Only assuming that “standard” might get me closest to Hawksmoor’s beautiful dining room, that selection brought me to what appeared to be, drumroll please: a regular reservation. Further fiddling indicated that those stated “experiences” might be some kind of burger and martini promotion, but maybe not exclusively that and only provided you’re seated at the counter, which would seem to be separate from the bar and certainly not a high-top or in any way “standard.” But I’m meeting them more than halfway with any of those guesses, and reps could not provide answers at press time, nor could OpenTable or Resy.
Cafe Chelsea is behind a similar moat. Its Resy calendar depicts a sea of what appear to be yellow tickets. But click on one for two and you’re once more ushered to the usual completion page and the threat of a $15 fee per person in the event of late cancellation. "The yellow ticket simply notes that large party reservations can potentially be booked on those dates," a spokesperson says, emphasis mine.
Then there’s the excellent, comfortable K’Far, which listed “dining room,” and “main dining room” among its configurations before I wrote seeking clarification.
"The tags “main dining room” and “dining room” refer to the same space." a rep says. "To be honest, I don’t quite understand why the restaurant is tagging tables at all... But I’m told that it’s a necessity, given the way that K’Far uses Resy OS."
"Yes, it’s convoluted. Yes, it begs more questions than it answers. And, yes, I’ve already written to the Resy team to find out if this cockamamy taxonomy is necessary."
At press time, only “dining room” appears across K’Far’s wide availability for the rest of the month, and anyway, it’s really great, you should go.
Cafe Camellia, which counts coveted love from The New York Times among its accolades, has curious vacancy, considering, and your choice of “garden,” “front” or “back dining.” Those all seem straightforward enough, but what differences may lay betwixt the “fore” and “hind” to merit such segmentation?
"The front dining is around the bar and has a view of the kitchen and has more going on visually where as the back dining is more tucked away from all that," its operations director says.
Likewise, Don Don, whose all “grill top” tables imply the existence of some other kind. "They are actually all grill top tables," a rep says. And the one that truly boggles the mind is the “sip ‘n’ snack” category that joins more expected areas at Ma-dé, which "just refers to the high top counter seating along the bar—the full menu would still be available for order," says a spokesperson.
As hard as restaurant reservations are to get even armed with all the knowledge Google can spew, I just want to know what to expect. The spirit of spontaneity aside, you probably do, too. I haven’t identified any one workaround for these vexing vagaries. You could try to call, but fewer and fewer places publish their phone numbers. The same goes for email. Private social media messages might be an option, or you could join the chorus of forever unanswered commenters on those same platforms. Images posted to amateur review sites might help, though I must confess not in some of the cases above. In the absence of improved clarity, it’s one more element of chance in a hospitality game that paying customers can’t always bet on.
But, unlike the inevitable table for one in some new restaurant’s “enchanted alleyway,” waiting at this trend’s logical end, at least you can know that you’re not alone.