Writing in the Times, Frank Bruni notes the increasing tendency in the US to provide various levels of service for money.
Much has been made of commercial flights these days, with all those divisions between first class and coach. For various supplements or with various deals, you can get a few more inches of legroom or, shy of that, a prime aisle seat. You can get to board earlier or later, and thus hoard or miss out on the overhead bins. Will it be long before there’s a ranked queue for the bathroom? I’m not even sure I’m kidding.
It’s not that pecking orders or badges of affluence are anything new. Our homes, cars, clubs and clothes have long been advertisements of our economic clout, used and perceived that way.
But lately, the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer? In a country of rising income inequality and an economy that’s moved from manufacturing to services, one thing we definitely make in abundance is distinctions.
Reminds me of Tom Junod’s piece in Esquire about waiting in line as an expression of American democracy.
Apparently, an Englishman named Leonard Sim took his family to Disneyland a few years ago, and his vacation was ruined by waiting in line. He invented something called the Flash Pass, and then sold it to an English company called Lo-Q — as in “Low Queue” — which contracted it to Whitewater. So now, when you go to Whitewater and many other American amusement parks, you pay for parking ($15, at Whitewater), and then for admission ($37.50, for any human being over 48 inches tall), and finally for a locker ($16), and then, once you’re inside, you can pay an extra $30 for a “standard” Flash Pass or $40 for the “gold.” And then you can cut the lines.
It sounds like an innovative answer to the problem that everybody faces at an amusement park, and one perfectly in keeping with the approaches currently in place at airports and even on some crowded American highways — perfectly in keeping with the two-tiering of America. You can pay for one level of access, or you can pay for another. If you have the means, you can even pay for freedom. There’s only one problem: Cutting the line is cheating, and everyone knows it. Children know it most acutely, know it in their bones, and so when they’ve been waiting on a line for a half-hour and a family sporting yellow plastic Flash Passes on their wrists walks up and steps in front of them, they can’t help asking why that family has been permitted the privilege of perpetrating what looks like an obvious injustice. And then you have to explain not just that they paid for it but that you haven’t paid enough — that the $100 or so that you’ve ponied up was just enough to teach your children that they are second- or third-class citizens.
Former NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni writes about the joys of being a regular at your neighborhood restaurant.
What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.
My wife and I eat out at least once a week and we used to travel all over the city to try all sorts of different places, just-opened hot spots and old favorites alike. It was great. But now we mostly go to a bar/restaurant1 around the corner from where we live and that’s even better. Bruni covers the experience pretty well, but I just wanted to share a couple of seemingly small aspects of being a regular:
1. Our local is popular and always crowded, especially during the dreaded 7-10pm hours and double especially Thu-Sat nights. But even when I go in by myself at a peak time, when the bar’s jam-packed, there’s always a seat for me. It might take a bit, but something opens up and they slot me in, even if I’m only stopping in for a drink and they could seat a two-top for dinner at the bar. (A regular in the hand is worth two in the rush.)
2. This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I’ve come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It’s like having a house account without the house account.
3. Another nice thing about being a regular at a place that values regulars is that you meet the other regulars. This summer I was often left to my own devices for dinner and a couple times a week, I ended up at my local. And almost without exception, I ended up having dinner with someone I’d previously met at the bar. Routinely turning a solo dining experience into dinner with a friend is an amazing accomplishment for a restaurant.
Frank Bruni, who was the food critic at the NY Times for five years, was recently diagnosed with gout. Since his diagnosis, he’s had to cut back on much of his previous food and drink favorites.
You never really quite appreciate just what a cornucopia of food alternatives exists — just how many culinary directions you can set off in — until a few are cut off and you’re forced to re-route yourself. That’s a lesson that people with celiac disease and with diabetes have learned. It’s what vegetarians have long asserted. And it’s what gout is teaching me. In diet books, the word “substitution” comes across as some pathetic euphemism for “sacrifice” and “compromise,” a positive-spin noun born of negative circumstances. But substitution is indeed a plausible course, and not necessarily a punitive one. At breakfast, oatmeal thickened with a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter can provide the same wicked indulgence that pork sausage does. At dinnertime, chicken prepared with care and ingenuity can go a long way toward replacing lamb, and the right kind of omelet can be wholly satisfying.
After five years, NY Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni is moving on to other assignments.
In his spare time, between aerobic eating and the requisite gym time to burn it all off, he has managed to produce a memoir of his lifelong, complicated relationship with food. Recognizing that the book is certain to seriously compromise his ability to be a spy in the land of food, Frank picked this as a natural time to move on. He will be turning in his restaurant-critic credentials when his memoir, “Born Round: the Secret History of a Full-Time Eater,” is published in late August.
Sad to see him go…I liked Bruni as a reviewer. But how long can the Times continue to expect their critics to remain anonymous? Savvy restaurateurs often knew when Bruni was in the house and it remains unclear whether a known reviewer is a biased reviewer.
NY Times food critic Frank Bruni notes that in this down economy, it’s easier to get reservations and deals at even the hottest restaurants as they struggle to remain profitable. And the service is less haughty.
“The attitude that a number of places used to have, they don’t have that anymore,” Ms. Rappoport said, her tone of voice communicating equal measures bewilderment and relief. “That attitude of ‘we’re doing you a favor,’ that frosty condescending attitude — I don’t find that anymore. And I’ve experienced that change over and over again.” Servers, she said, make double- and triple-sure that her table has everything it needs. Managers circle back to the table more often than ever to ask, with new urgency, if everything’s O.K.
For opportunistic diners, there are at least three big advantages to this trend.
1. Great food at relatively reasonable prices.
2. Dining opportunities at great but previously unavailable restaurants at good times.
3. The chance to become a highly valued regular at your favorite restaurant. If they’re doing things right and you support them when times are tough (visit often, tip well, etc.), they’ll gratefully reward you in better times with reservations at prime times, VIP treatment, and dishes “courtesy of the chef”.
The NY Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, has been answering reader questions all week…it’s worth a read if you care at all about food and dining out.
New York Times food critic Frank Bruni tries out the Urbanspoon restaurant-seeking application on the iPhone (shake the phone to find restaurant options near you) and ends up writing a pretty convincing argument for individual expertise over collective wisdom.
I locked in a price of two dollar signs and shook again. Up came the Morgan Dining Room, and off went an alarm in my head. Isn’t the Morgan Dining Room a lunch place that’s closed most nights? I called to make sure, and, sure enough, got a recording.
Urbanspoon is more of a beginning than an end, unable to factor in, for example, whether the restaurant it’s recommending books up a month in advance (Babbo, for example) or often has long waits (Momofuku Ssam Bar). That’s a troublesome shortcoming in New York, where competition for seats in the most popular places is fierce.
Frank Bruni, the food critic for the NY Times, wrote yesterday about the difficulty of getting a reservation at David Chang’s new Momofuku Ko restaurant. Ko’s online reservation system is the *only* way of procuring a seat at the tiny Manhattan restaurant…no walk-ins, no friends of the chef or celebs getting preferential treatment. It works more or less like Ticketmaster’s online ticketing: you select the number of guests, it shows you the available reservation times (if any), you click on a time, and if that time is still available when you click it, only then does the system hold your choice while you fill in some information.
It’s a simple system; seats for dinner are released on the site a week in advance at 10am each day and the people that click on their preferred times first get the reservations. Ko takes only 32 reservations each night and the restaurant is one of the hottest in town, which means that all the reservations are gone each day in seconds…sometimes in 2 or 3 seconds. Just like Radiohead tickets on Ticketmaster.
Except that diners are not used to this sort of thing. One of Bruni’s readers got irritated that he got through to the pick-a-time screen but then when he clicked on his preferred time was told that the reservation was already gone. Someone had beaten him to the punch. So he emailed the restaurant for an explanation. The exchange between the restaurant and the snubbed patron should be familiar with anyone who has done web development for clients or any kind of tech support.
In a nutshell, the would-be patron said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “your system is unfair and broken,” and the folks at Ko replied, “sorry, that’s how the internet works”. The comments on the post are both fascinating and disappointing, with many people attempting to debunk Ko’s seemingly lame excuse of, well, that’s how the internet works. Except that’s pretty much the right answer…although it’s clearer to say that that’s how a web server communicates with a web browser (and even that is a bit imprecise). When the pick-a-time page is downloaded by a particular browser, it’s based on the information the web server had when it sent the page out. The page sits unchanged on your computer — it doesn’t know anything about how many reservations the web server has left to dole out — until the person clicks on a time. An anonymous commenter in Bruni’s thread nails the choice that a web developer has to face in this instance:
This is a multi-user concurrency problem that all sites with limited inventory and a high demand (users all clicking the button all at the same time) have to deal with. It’s not an easy problem to solve.
The easier method (which the Ko site has chosen) is to not “lock” a reservation slot until the very end. You submit your party size and the system looks for available slots that it knows about. It shows you the calendar page, with the available slots it knows about (if any). This doesn’t update in real time because they haven’t implemented it to know about the current state of inventory. This can be done, but it’s more complicated.
The more complicated method is to lock a reservation slot upon beginning of the checkout process, with a time out occurring if the user takes too long to finish, or some other error occurs (in other systems this can be a blacklisted credit card number). If this happens, the system throws the reservation slot back into the pool. However, you need to give people a mechanism to keep trying for ones that get thrown back into the pool (like a “Try Again” button).
Building something like this not impossible (see Ticketmaster) but requires a much more real-time system that is aware of who has what, and what stage of the checkout process they’re in - in addition to total available inventory. Building a robust system like this is not cheap.
Even then, you might get shut out. You submit your party size, everything is already gone, and you never get to the calendar page. It just moves up the “sold out” disappointment to earlier in the process.
A subsequent commenter suggests using “Web 2.0” technologies (I think he’s talking specifically about Ajax) but as Anonymous suggests, that would increase the complexity of the system on the server side (unnecessarily in my mind) while moving up the “‘sold out’ disappointment to earlier in the process”. Plus, that sort of system could put you “on hold” for several minutes while the reservations are taken by the folks in front of you until you’re told, “too bad, all gone”. I’m not sure that’s preferable to being told sooner and may result in much more irritation on the part of potential diners.
In my opinion (as a web developer and as someone who has used Ko’s reservation system from start to finish), Ko’s system does it right. You’re locked into a reservation by the system only when you’ve chosen exactly what you want. It favors the web user who’s prepared & lucky and is simple for Ko to implement and maintain. That the logic used to produce this simple system takes three paragraphs to explain to an end user is irrelevent. After all, a restaurant dinner is easy to eat but explaining how it came to be that way fills entire books.
This might seem too inside baseball for most readers — the number of people interested in new NYC restaurants *and* web development is likely quite small, even among kottke.org’s readership — but there’s an interesting conflict going on here between technology and customer service. What kind of a problem is this…technological or social? Bruni’s correspondent blamed the technology and much of the focus of the discussion has been on the process of procuring a reservation. But the main limiting factor is the enormous demand for seats; tens of thousands of people a week vying for a few hundred seats per week. The technology is largely irrelevent; whatever Ko does, however well the reservation system works or doesn’t work, nearly all of the people interacting with the restaurant are going to be disappointed that they didn’t get in.
One of the first reviews Ruth Reichl wrote as the New York Times food critic was of Le Cirque, a fancy French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. In the now-famous piece, immortalied in her memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl compares the service she receives at the restaurant as a welcomed reviewer with that as an average Jane. From the review:
Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one. An avalanche of sweets descended upon the table, and I was fascinated to note that the raspberries on the new desserts were three times the size of those on the old ones.
Thirteen years later, current food critic Frank Bruni reviews the newest incarnation of Le Cirque in today’s Times and echoing Reichl’s technique, finds that little has changed:
I also experienced Le Cirque’s famously split personality, half dismissive and half pampering, depending on who you are. On my first visit, when a companion and I arrived before the two other members of our party, a host let us know we should wait in the bar area not by asking or telling us to go there but by gesturing silently in that direction with his head. Most of the seats were occupied, so we stood. Over the next 10 minutes, no one asked us if we wanted a drink or anything else.
After we were taken to our table, servers seemed to figure out who I was and offered to move us to prime real estate with better sightlines. (We declined.)
So on a subsequent visit I sent three friends in ahead of me. One sat at the bar for 15 minutes without getting a server’s attention, and a bartender quarreled with the two others when they asked that the charges for their Champagne be transferred to the table. At a place as self-consciously posh as Le Cirque, such a request should be granted instantly.
But I was treated like royalty when I showed up, and on another night, when I dined with a filmmaker whom the staff also knew, soft-shell crabs, which weren’t on the menu, appeared almost as soon as she mentioned an appetite for them. They were fantastic: crunchy, meaty, sweet.
I can’t imagine wanting to go someplace like that when there’s so many other places with food as good or better and where the service is friendly, helpful, and accommodating for everybody. I guess that’s the side of New York I don’t like.
Earlier today I posted a link to Frank Bruni’s new food blog over at the NY Times. At the same time, I added a comment to this post about how restaurant reservations work here in NYC. I went back to see if there was any further conversation and my comment had been deleted (or had otherwise disappeared). Not such a good start. I’ve resubmitted the comment…we’ll see how long it lasts.