You’d love to go to that spot that has that amazing pasta everyone is talking about. But the reservation app shows no availability for the entire month, even when you check in at the stroke of midnight. Maybe a call will help? A quick look on the restaurant’s website shows only an email address. You fire off an email, and after no response, decide to try your luck walking in. You introduce yourself to the host, whose eyes are glued to a device. Without looking up, they inform you the wait is over two hours.
The whole experience has you pining for the good old days, when if you wanted a “rezzy” — not a Resy — you simply dialed a phone number and an engaged human would answer. In our tech-dominated world, is there any way to bring back the IRL restaurant-patron relationship? These nine industry insiders seem to think so. Their insights on commitment, devotion, patience, understanding, and even writing love notes demonstrate exactly how to rekindle restaurant relationships, the old-school way.
It does take some commitment to get into our restaurants. Some people plan a month in advance. Sometimes people have to wait, but we take very good care of people who show that commitment. The restaurant-patron relationship needs to be two-sided and I think humanizing that relationship is very important.
Any good relationship starts with empathy. Don’t be judgmental. Appreciate what’s coming to you. Leave entitlement behind. Return the graciousness that the restaurant gives you. A simple act of graciousness, a simple gesture of appreciation and empathy is probably the biggest currency any patron can use.
I’ve owned a restaurant since 1985, when the only thing that we had to go on was recognizing a name on a reservation sheet. And that was very, very important, and still is. If you recognize that name as someone who is a regular, you can do all sorts of things to enable the customer to come back. So, come back! Those who come back often can get a great table, for example.
Over the years, I’ve given out my phone number to people who are good patrons, so I can help them out with a reservation or any other request. If they are celebrating a birthday, they can put me in the loop and I can alert my staff to take extra care. Or when people book a private party, they put their trust in us and that really fortifies us.
You reap what you sow, so come with the intention of having a good time. We notice when somebody is open and curious and has an optimistic outlook. Share what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Sometimes people will tell us they are here to celebrate, so that gives us some direction as to what kind of engagement they’re looking to have. And we appreciate word of mouth — it is incredibly important and much more valuable than online ratings. We call our devoted regulars “legacy guests” because they are beyond regulars. They know that we’ll get them in, and they tend to have flexibility — many eat at off-hours, for example. Real restaurant people are usually a little bit more savvy and creative with how they plan their time.
Come consistently. If you show up regularly, we’ll never forget you. The other huge key is respect, just like in any other relationship. Our best patrons are just as respectful to us as we are to them. They follow the rules and they never really ask us to bend the rules. They don’t try to squeeze special favors, but they are the types that we will do our best to accommodate. I think making reservation at the door helps, too, which not all restaurants are open to. It’s always easier to look somebody in the eye and communicate. Patience and understanding are important on both ends.
Reach out to us. I think it’s super important that somebody answers the phone and when websites don’t include phone numbers: that’s a sign of no trust. Our regulars get the maître d number, which is a privilege. It’s human interaction, even if we’re texting.
Reservations platforms automate that communication — but they’re not going to know when to send that cute little emoji, or to say, “Sorry for the inconvenience. Here’s an option.” Humans are going to give you an option.
Still, restaurants do need to build a bridge to modern technology. It can be helpful. My restaurants use the In Kind app, which allows people to open house accounts and gives back bonuses to spend. That’s still tech, but it’s encouraging people to come back and become regulars.
We try to help people and offer a service beyond Resy, but these are earned privileges. Some people can make reservations with us in person because they’ve been with us since our COVID pop-up days. And they’re very kind to our staff, they tip generously, and if they cancel, they do it before the 24-hour window.
Our regulars know the staff by name’ they ask how they are doing; they care about each of our team members. One amazing regular just took three of our employees out to Le Bernardin because they all had January birthdays. We treat him like a king because he treats our staff like kings.
One of our bartenders had to have open heart surgery. We posted the GoFundMe for her and when we saw so many of our regulars donate, it was really heartwarming to see the support of our community. If you care about a restaurant, put some love back into it. Show that you care about us and we will care about you.
One of the nicest things that guests can do is to write a little note. They don’t have to mail it; it can just be an email. Sending a note saying they had a really nice experience goes a long way for us to remember them.
Sometimes customers will give suggestions or let us know if something went wrong that night, and that is absolutely fine with me. I don’t like having had something gone wrong, but I’d rather know about it and I like being told about it in a kind way. That’s a nice personal approach, as opposed to just writing a Yelp review, because it’s going directly to us. It gives us permission to respond in a genuine way.
Another great way for people to engage with us is to subscribe to our newsletter. We have a very particular voice—it’s like the restaurant coming to your home. It’s a way to really connect with our guests and let them know what’s coming up.
In 50 years of working in the West Village, I have raised some people’s children; I’ve had people ask my advice about their dates; I’ve had 1000 people follow me from restaurant to restaurant because when they walk in the door, I remember their name, their face, what they had, and I have an underlying tone of being nice. That works both ways. Be nice. Be curious. If you are curious about the food, if you show some interest in the place itself, that creates a spark of a relationship. Trust is a big part, and that is built over time. Trust that we’ll take care of you when you need it. And if you are nice, curious and smart, I will give you one of my cards with my number. I don’t answer phone calls, but if you can’t get a seat through Resy, if you text me, I’ll make it happen. But be courteous — don’t text me on a Friday afternoon asking for a six top at 8 p.m.
In our anonymous, automated, internet kind of world, remember that restaurants are one of those places that keep neighborhoods alive, and it’s the humans in the restaurants that are essential to preserving that.