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July 28th, 2004 KELLY CLARKE | Bite Club
 

Reservations About Reservations

     
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NOBLE ROT
IMAGE: BASIL CHILDERS
Bite Club's bossman, Editor Mark Zusman, stormed into our tiny cube sporting a scowl that could've curdled cream. It seems our leader had been stalled with a few business associates for 45 minutes outside of Navarre (10 NE 28th Ave., 232-3555) on a recent Friday evening. The taste of the waiting game caused him to spit out a single sentence: "Why don't Portland restaurants take reservations?"

Ah yes, waiting. You can count on devouring fabulous regional fare at many of the small, casual neighborhood restaurants that have taken our city's palates by storm--after you've endured the wait to get inside, that is.

For example, on a weekend you're likely to wait about 45 minutes for a table at Lauro Kitchen (3377 SE Division St., 239-7000) and up to an hour in the winter months at Noble Rot (2724 SE Ankeny St., 233-1999). At least across town at Park Kitchen (422 NW 8th Ave., 223-7275), hourlong waits are sweetened by the prospect of a sunset bocce ball game in the North Park Blocks.

It's not just us snobs at WW who complain. Restaurateurs report the tongue-lashings they've received from diners who think their businesses are just too lazy, too inefficient or too indie to hold tables.

"My wife, Julie, was [verbally] beat up, abused and screamed at when she manned the door for the first year Lauro was open," says David Machado of the reaction to the no-reservation policy at their 48-seat restaurant. "Customers said that we'd go out of business without reservations. I say we'd go out of business if we had them."

Most diners want to eat at peak hours--that's 7 or 7:30 pm in Portland--but restaurateurs need to fill seats all night long. Some reservation-holders show up late, or worse, not at all; others think they own the table for the night once they've been seated. Add those factors to a neighborhood restaurant with a shoestring budget, and you've got the recipe for a small-business meltdown.

Portland does have one joint that blows a huge hole in the "big restaurant equals reservations" theory. With 85-tables between its dining room and patio, humongo Henry's 12th Street Tavern (10 NW 12th Ave., 227-5320), still doesn't save seats--because it doesn't need to.

According to manager Craig McKellar, despite a two-hour wait, the restaurant is pulling in around 900 diners each Friday and Saturday evening. With an average bill of $17.40 each, that adds up to a nightly take of at least $15,660. Ka-ching!

Back at Lauro, co-owner Machado says he tells large dining parties the truth: If they don't want to wait, they might be happier dining elsewhere. "This model puts friends and neighbors first," says the owner/chef. "If a good product and a good price begets a wait, that's just the market."

That market theory is all well and good, Mr. Machado. Bite Club will do our part for small business by urging Portlanders to abandon their wrist watches and enjoy the wait.

But please, will you volunteer to explain the Portland Small Restaurant Theory of Consumer Economics to our boss for us?

 
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