A Fancy Card Is Becoming the Only Way to Get a Restaurant Reservation (2024)

A Fancy Card Is Becoming the Only Way to Get a Restaurant Reservation (2)

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The co*cktail is $21, and it is absolutely worth it. Or at least that is what I’ve heard about a certain gussied-up old-fashioned that keeps making the rounds on my Instagram. Rum is infused with rose petals, ginger, and a smattering of other Indian spices and then mixed with orange juice and whole milk. The dairy curdles and is strained out drip-by-drip until the final clarified liquid is as clear as glass—a recipe that took two months to develop and requires 36 hours of preparation. After all that, it’s served on top of an ice cube stamped with the name of the restaurant that sells it: Bungalow.

For weeks I’ve been trying and failing to get a reservation at the buzzy Lower Manhattan Indian restaurant. The problem is Resy. The reservation app never seems to have any open slots. New tables supposedly open up every day at 11 a.m. Eastern. Most days they are all taken within three minutes.

Such is the nature of restaurant reservations these days: It has never been easier to book a table, and it’s never been harder to actually find one. You can fire up apps such as Resy, Tock, SevenRooms, Yelp, and OpenTable and find plenty of openings at perfectly good, even great, restaurants. But getting a seat at the most sought-after spots, especially in major cities, has become hellish. In the days of phone reservations, tables might have been booked up weeks or months in advance at the most exclusive restaurants—but now the phenomenon plays out beyond just the Michelin-starred spots. Batches of new openings can disappear before you have the time to click and confirm—perhaps snatched up by bots or scalpers. One student at Brown has reportedly made $70,000 by hawking reservations between classes.

But with the right credit card, you have a better shot. Resy, which is owned by American Express, keeps certain tables open for the Platinum crowd, and leapfrogs such cardholders to the front of waiting lists. Apparently one reservation app wasn’t enough. Last month, American Express announced that it was shelling out $400 million for Tock, a Resy competitor used by some 7,000 restaurants, bars, and wineries worldwide. The goal is to connect “even more premium customers with the most exciting restaurants,” Howard Grosfield, an American Express executive, said in the company’s press release. In all likelihood, a fancy credit card is about to matter even more in the reservation wars. For an entire set of in-demand spots, a card isn’t just for paying the bill: It’s something like an entry ticket in its own right.

Reservations, once free, have been financialized. If you want to eat at the best spots, you’ll fork over $695 annually for Amex Platinum, buying access to exclusive reservations—roughly equivalent to how you largely need a fancy card to get into an airport lounge. Every day, Bungalow’s Resy page sees about 1,500 people vying for a spot, Jimmy Rizvi, a co-owner of the restaurant, told me. American Express withholds a few tables for its elite customers, and in return comps Bungalow the nearly $500 monthly fee to use Resy. “And it benefits us that we get a clientele of big spenders,” Rizvi said.

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Amex is not the lone credit-card giant to figure out that there is money to be made off reservations: JPMorgan Chase owns the restaurant-review site The Infatuation, through which it offers exclusive reservations and hosts ultra-luxe food events just for its Sapphire Reserve members. And Capital One has its own reservation platform, offering spots at hundreds of restaurants.

When it works, parlaying a card into a reservation can feel great, like a cheat code. Or like you’re a celebrity who can get a table anywhere, any night. But eventually, the reservation wars will make losers of us all. If you’ve been to an airport lounge of late, did you struggle to find a free outlet to charge your phone? Was the buffet line long enough that you skipped out on complementary yogurt parfait and breakfast potatoes? The metal credit cards with eye-watering annual fees have become so popular that the lounges are no longer a respite from the crowds in Terminal 2. Something similar is already happening with restaurants. The exclusive privileges are no longer, well, exclusive. So many people want in on reservations that even the proud owners of an Amex Black card, with its $10,000 initial charge and $5,000 annual fee, don’t have a great shot. In 2022, when Resy hosted the Copenhagen restaurant Noma for a five-night pop-up in Brooklyn, only certain American Express card owners had even the opportunity to buy tickets for $700 a pop. They still sold out instantly and generated a waitlist of 20,000 people.

The same process plays out again and again. Reservations to the cool spots quickly disappear on the apps, which makes them more desirable, which makes the next batch of slots disappear even quicker. As Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic, “Resy has effectively become a one-stop shop for securing the kind of restaurant experience that people want to brag about to their friends … It is a digital velvet rope, showing diners in no uncertain terms which places are hopelessly mobbed.”

Things are the same on Tock. Although the platform is smaller than Resy, it has some of the most in-demand spots. That includes Alinea, the Chicago fine-dining mecca with a tasting menu that has included edible green-apple balloons and a dessert course in which chefs paint on your table with Jackson Pollock–like strokes. (The restaurant’s co-founder Nick Kokonas also started Tock.) You’ll also find reservations for both Atomix and SingleThread—the only two restaurants in the U.S. currently ranked among the world’s 50 best. As The New York Times once put it, “OpenTable is economy. Resy is premium economy. Tock is business class.”

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Sure, trying and failing to nab a reservation is literally a champagne problem—pity the poor soul who can’t splurge on dinner and a bottle of Dom Perignon Brut. But consider the bigger picture: Must every aspect of life be subject to some form of digital arbitrage? Dating apps are full of schemes to make you pay up. Airbnb is basically just as expensive and corporatized as actual hotels. An Amazon search result will pull up reams of stealthy sponsored listings. Now even restaurant reservations are a commodity—vacuumed up by bots and scalpers looking to sell. As a last attempt to find my way to Bungalow and its $21 co*cktail, I closed out Resy and opened up another site: Appointment Trader. Someone had managed to land a table for two for Tuesday evening, and it could be mine for the low price of $175. “Bots are the biggest problem we have,” Rizvi said, snatching up about 8 percent of all reservations at Bungalow. When they aren’t sold, the table might sit empty. One New York steakhouse with an especially bad bot problem reportedly has lost $10,000 in one night from cancellations and no-shows.

I had to ask Rizvi: Any tips on getting a table? All of the reservations, all of the fancy cards, all of the people clogging up the waiting list—“it’s a good problem to have,” he said. “But we are getting bad reviews as well from people who are not able to make the reservation.” So right at opening time, Bungalow saves a few tables for the lone style of dining impervious to this madness: walk-ins.

Saahil Desai is a supervisory senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

A Fancy Card Is Becoming the Only Way to Get a Restaurant Reservation (2024)
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