How a Diner Feels About Tickets for Restaurants

Alinea/Next/Aviary owner Nick Kokonas wrote a thorough explanation of the thinking behind the ticketing system that he created for his restaurants. I agree with Kokonas that tickets are GREAT for restaurants, as the main advantages of the system are minimizing no shows and basically locking in a certain level of revenue per customer. In his own examples he mentions that the first Next menu brought in over $500,000 in revenues in the first two days. What restaurant wouldn’t want that kind of money up front? Plus he realizes every tech entrepreneur’s dream of replacing people with robots (kidding…sort of).

But I still think that the system, at least the way Next has used it, is too unfriendly towards the consumer. Kokonas broke his advantages down into six points, so here’s my point of view on each:

It creates transparency of process for customers and builds trust and loyalty

Kokonas knocks OpenTable for not providing an accurate representation of a restaurant’s availability at a given night and time. That is one of the more annoying things about OpenTable. And who wants to be bothered to pick up the phone and talk to an actual human? So the transparency thing is a somewhat valid point, though what’s to prevent a restaurant selling tickets to hold some back or run special sales for VIPs? Given that, I’m not so sure the “trust and loyalty” argument really flies. To me, there are other ways to make a diner feel that “trust and loyalty”.

It acknowledges that there are better / worse table times, and shifts demands accordingly / It moves pricing in TWO directions, which is key

These two points are really related. Restaurants should have the ability to charge more for primetime tables and less for off-peak tables, basically borrowing pricing strategies from the airline and hotel industries. Makes sense, but it’s a shame that you can no longer get the deeply discounted tables that we saw at Next when they first opened. I did think it was cool that Alinea offered deeply discounted tables the night of the Super Bowl.

It supports the notion that table management should be visually simple for the restaurant managers and the customer alike. And ticket systems need table management!

I’m sure that’s great for whoever is using the system at the restaurant. I have no idea how the back-end of OpenTable compares to Kokonas’ system. In terms of what the diner sees, my experience hasn’t been so “simple” when it comes to buying Next tickets.

First I have to log in to the site. Then I have to enter a Captcha. Then I have to enter another Captcha because I’ll inevitably get the first one wrong. Then I have to figure out the day, time, and pricing to book a table. I haven’t had any issues with the system accepting my credit card information, but I know others have.

When I book a reservation on OpenTable, I go to the site, enter my date and time, and I can just click right on the reservation I want for whatever restaurant I want. The whole thing takes roughly three seconds. And there’s an easy to use app if I’m not near a computer. Also, if I need to make a change, say move my time back 30 minutes or add an extra person to my party, it’s incredibly easy. I can even use any browser I want.

Kokonas’ system has to become that user friendly to really be advantageous for the diner.

It creates a direct connection between restaurant and patron.

Maybe Kokonas’ system allows restaurants to better keep track of what a diner likes or doesn’t like. In the past, before implementing the current system, Alinea did a wonderful job of this. In fact, they were pretty scary about remembering your preferences. But a lot of restaurants are good at that, particularly at the high end. If Kokonas’ system can make a restaurant even better, I say great.

It does not penalize success

Kokonas’ system doesn’t charge a restaurant per transaction. Frankly I don’t see any restaurants that use OpenTable lowering their prices if they move to Kokonas’ system, but if they want to up their profits a bit in an industry with razor thin margins, I say go for it.

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I think there are a lot of advantages for restaurants using a ticketing system that can potentially be passed along to benefit the diner. Better customer preference management, the potential to adjust pricing in a customer friendly way, and being able to keep some profits in house to invest in a better dining experience (or maybe pay for the good folks working at the restaurant).

But at the same time, advance booking and payment shifts much of the balance of power in the relationship to the restaurant. An inflexible system that can be hard to navigate really sells the diner short. Kokonas mentions that the current system is essentially a beta test so maybe some of these issues can be cleaned up. After all, there’s no reason to avoid improving on the current restaurant/reservation business model. I’m a big believer that just because something has been done a certain way in the past it doesn’t mean that it should always be done that way. Innovation is a wonderful thing, and I’d love to see Kokonas further innovate for the benefit of everyone.

Life Outside the Food Internet

If you’re reading this post you probably got here via Twitter. If you follow me on Twitter, it’s more than likely because you’re interested in Chicago-related restaurant discussion. We’re fortunate here in Chicago to have a vibrant community of smart and engaged folks who love to chat about food on Twitter, and the result is that there’s a ton of information constantly streaming about the local restaurant scene.

But I think what we forget sometimes, or maybe it’s just hard to quantify, is that there is another (probably larger) part of the population that is completely removed from this discussion. Believe it or not, there are actually people out there who are capable to going to a restaurant and not dissecting it on social media, or posting #tons of #pictures of their #food on #Instagram.

This occurs to me every so often when I find myself at an otherwise very good and very busy restaurant that no one I know ever talks about. It happened this past weekend at Taxim. Taxim got a bunch of buzz when they first opened in 2009, but hardly anyone on Food Twitter ever really talks about it anymore. The last LTH Forum mention was almost a year ago. The place does have about 260 Yelp reviews which, for a 5 year old restaurant, breaks down to only about 1 review a week. And yet my meal there this weekend was fantastic. One of my most enjoyable of probably the last six months. Most interestingly, the place was packed. Who are these people?

I’m sure there are many other examples of this around town. Coco Pazzo (245 Yelp reviews, open since 1992) is another that I can think of off the top of my head. That place is usually busy, the food is always good, and nobody I know goes there (or if they do they don’t talk about it). Porkchop has become a joke among a few of us for being the perfect representation of restaurants in this category. I mean, who ever goes to Porkchop? Well, apparently enough people for them to be opening two other locations. In fact, they have 20 more Yelp reviews than Taxim and they’ve only been open since 2011.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is other than it’s a good reminder to not ignore restaurants just because they don’t happen to be the flavor of the month. Or if they don’t come up on people’s lists of recommendations, year-end lists, or lists of 18 places to get a wonut. A good restaurant is a good restaurant, and those of us who tend to obsess over this stuff are more likely to be the exception than the norm.


 

Just for reference, here are the top ten most reviewed Chicago restaurants on Yelp. Not a bad list, actually.

Ceres Table – The Restaurant East Lakeview Needs

I’ve lived in the vicinity of the Lincoln Park/Lakeview border since moving to Chicago in 2001. When I first arrived the dining options around me were dreadful. I ate at Duffy’s a lot, but that was fine since I was a 22 year old former frat guy working in consulting. Fortunately though, as my tastes matured, so did the restaurant scene in the area.

If you start south of Fullerton on Clark Street and work your way north (switching over to Broadway once you hit Diversey), you can come up with a pretty solid list of places to eat. Riccardo (I prefer Enoteca of Trattoria), Eleven City Diner, del Seoul, Lito’s Empanadas, Senza, Crisp, Pastoral/Bar Pastoral, Flub-a-Dubs…you can really do a lot worse. What was missing though was a nicer sit down place with “grown up” food, but nothing too serious, stuffy, or expensive. Chilam Balam is probably the closest thing we have, but they don’t take reservations and that usually keeps me away from nicer places.

Ceres Table has stepped in to fill that void. We made a last minute reservation for Friday night and had a great meal, sharing a bunch of charcuterie, crudi, pasta, and cheese. We also wanted pizza but unfortunately the oven wasn’t working.

The beef tartare is a wonderful version, the meat well diced and with an excellent mustard to mix in. Amberjack crudo was made with high quality fish, but could have used a touch of acidity (maybe lightly pickle the cucumbers that it came with). Arancine were fried perfectly and had just a little bit of melty taleggio in the interior. Spaghetti nero had a nice kick to it and the bites of cuttelfish mixed in were well cooked (neither chewy or mushy). Instead of dessert we finished with some cheese: crescenza stracchino (closer to butter than cheese, which isn’t a bad thing), taleggio, and pecorino sardo.

I never went to the original Ceres Table location. But given our dinner last night and the fact that this location is within walking distance from our place, I think we’ll be going to this location often. It’s a great menu for either nibbling or a proper meal, and both the wine and cocktail lists have a lot of interesting options.

Welcome Ceres Table. I think you’ll be here a while.

Cicchetti – Blending into a Crowded Field

We had tickets last night to Buyer and Cellar at the Broadway Playhouse, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out Cicchetti, which is just a short walk away.

I arrived early and had a drink at the bar, a good Manhattan with one of those giant ice cubes that make you feel like you’re drinking a Serious Cocktail. They had bowls of cold, somewhat limp potato chips sitting on the bar for snacking.

The space is sort of interesting. It’s loft-like without actually being a loft. But then the room oddly opens up to the Soprafina next door. Now, I have no issues with Soprafina. They’re a minor part of my office lunch rotation. But it’s a little strange to be enjoying a “nicer” meal while a doctor in scrubs is enjoying his panini about 10 feet away.

The appetizers were the weakest part of the meal. We had the cobia crudo and the aged hangar steak carpaccio. Both dishes were victims of flawed concepts. The cobia was served on rice crackers in a pool of harissa. The first bite was a nice mix of textures and flavors (particularly the smokiness of the harissa) but over time the rice cracker became soggy from both the fish and the sauce. By the end of the dish the textures had become pretty unappealing. The carpaccio had a funk to it that has no place in a good steak carpaccio. I don’t know if it was the aging, the cut, the cauliflower served on top, or a combination of the three, but it was a disappointing take on what is usually a lay-up of a dish.

Main courses were more successful. I had the squid ink orecchiette with lamb soppressata. The pasta was decently made (though probably a little too flat) and was well cooked. The hunks of lamb soppressata packed a good amount of heat. There were also Brussels sprouts involved, diced and maybe fried, adding some crunch. I enjoyed the dish, and Marissa enjoyed her saffron risotto with a fried egg.

Dessert was my favorite course. I had the Reverse Affogato, coffee gelato with vanila milk and donuts. My one criticism is that there were too many donuts, which is probably the worst bit of restaurant criticism ever written. The point is, you should plan on sharing at least the donut portion of the dish.

Cicchetti has been pretty well reviewed from what I’ve seen. But the problem is that we have so many Italian restaurants opening now (roughly 7 each day*) that it’s hard for any of them to stand out. And I don’t think Cicchetti really stands out. Marissa commented on the way to the show that we could have gone to Bar Toma (which I don’t really like) and have had a comparable meal. I’m sure Cicchetti will do well given it’s location, but it’s not a restaurant I see myself having any desire to go back to.

 

 

 

* Figure may not be accurate

RIP Steven Shaw

Looking on to Facebook this morning I came across some terrible news. Steven Shaw, one of the creators of eGullet, had passed away suddenly yesterday. I only met him a couple of times but that doesn’t lessen the blow of the loss. Steven leaves behind a wife and young son. A true tragedy.

eGullet was my first introduction to the world of online food discussion. I don’t remember how I came across it initially. I think I was trying to find some information online about some new restaurant in Chicago and the Google-hold lead me to eG’s Heartland forum. I couldn’t believe that there was a whole site devoted to just talking about food and restaurants. I found my people!

My first post was terrible, but eventually I got the hang of it, and I found myself part of a new community. I met people that never would have been in my life otherwise and had some pretty neat experiences as a result. Most memorable was the annual Heartland Gathering that culminated in a bunch of us serving as background for a Bourdain segment at Burt’s Place.

Steven (and yes many others) were responsible for this. In the long, boring story of online food discussion eGullet is a significant (if not the most significant) part.

Like just about every other online food community eGullet changed and fractured. I’ve certainly moved on, not having posted there in I don’t know how many years. But that shouldn’t take away from what was built and what it led to.

RIP Steven. Wherever you are, I’m sure you’re enjoying a terrific meal…hopefully in your fish pants.

Odds and Ends – 3/12/14

I’ve been in the midst of a pretty great stretch of eating. Here are some expanded thoughts on a few things that I’ve tweeted recently…

Perennial Virant - I gave this place a lot of grief when they opened for a completely confusing menu format and food that just wasn’t all that interesting. But since then, Perennial continues to get better and better. My last few meals there have been nearly flawless in terms of both food and service. We went most recently on a snowy night (weird, right?) and I was ecstatic to hear that they were serving cassoulet as a special. Given Paul Virant’s cooking style I figured this dish would be a slam dunk and I was right. Perfectly cooked beans, smokey sausage and tasso ham. Warm, rich, comforting…everything a good cassoulet should be.

L2OWe haven’t been to L20 in forever but we decided to go to do a joint birthday dinner for me and my wife. The menu format has changed a bit since my last visit. Gone are the a la carte options (except caviar service). Now there is a choice of a four course prix fixe (with two choices for each course) or a longer tasting menu. We did the prix fixe, which also includes an amuse, a pre-dessert, and mignardises, so it does turn out to be a nice amount of food. Everything we had was fantastic, and the attention to detail that’s almost always been the hallmark of L2O was well in evidence. I hate whipping out my phone to take a picture at a place like L2O, but my first course was so stunningly gorgeous I had to get a (mostly terrible) shot

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This is a “salade” composed of brioche, foie gras, truffles, cured tuna, and haricot vert. Not only was this dish beyond intricate, but more importantly it was delicious. This theme carried through the rest of the meal.

The Publican - Here’s another place I haven’t been to forever. I grabbed a quick meal here with a friend last night before the Bulls game. What I like about The Publican is that when they nail a dish it can turn into something truly special. Unfortunately the current menu is a little longer than I’ve seen in the past so picking the “right” dishes can be crapshoot. Kanpachi crudo wasn’t as good as other raw fish preps that I’ve had here. The Little Gem salad with pig ears was as good as ever. There were three new dishes though that really stood out. First was a warm truffle salami that was served in a balsamic reduction. The second was a tripe amatriciana that was meant to be spread on some pieces of grilled ciabatta. Third was a chicken liver rigatoni. All three of these dishes demand your attention. They’re all beautifully balanced, taking competing flavors and putting them together perfectly. The balsamic working perfectly with the savory elements of the salami…the tripe a perfect mix of sweet, sour, spicy, and tripe-y…the pasta evoking every chopped liver I ate growing up, right down to the threads of onion mixed in. Go eat all of these. As soon as you can.

Gluten Free at the One Month Mark

We’re about a month into the great Gluten Free Period, so here’s an update.

First of all, the official diagnosis has been downgraded from “Celiac” to “Unknown”. Even with this new information (or lack thereof), we’re sticking with a gluten free diet for now until we get more information. More tests coming…you know how it goes.

As I expected we’ve been eating a lot more at home, which means I’ve been doing a lot more cooking. I don’t mind cooking, in fact I actually like it quite a bit. But I’m a lazy, lazy man so we wind up ordering in and going out far more than we should. As a public service to anyone reading this who is eating (or trying to eat) gluten free, here are a few of the better recipes that I’ve come across and have made:

Garlic Shrimp With Asparagus and Lemon
Mustard and Brown Sugar Glazed Salmon
Shrimp and Scallop Risotto (note: this is not actually risotto)
Spaghetti with Green Olives and Tomatoes

They’re all pretty basic a relatively quick since even though I’ve enjoyed getting back to cooking, I don’t really have any interest in making anything too involved after work. They’re also all relatively healthy. Lots of people are going gluten free by choice thinking that it’s a healthier way to eat. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a ton of gluten free junk food out there, but it does actually seem easier to eat gluten free and healthy at the same time. Follow the old advice: only shop on the edges of the supermarket.

Going out has been a bit trickier. Fortunately there’s a ton of information online about how different restaurants handle serving gluten free meals. OpenTable even has a devoted page. Anytime we’ve gone to a restaurant I’ve been sure to contact them in advance, let them know what I was looking for, and confirmed that they could accommodate. Here’s where we’ve been, and here’s how they do gluten free:

Arami – They have a gluten free menu if you ask for it, their sushi rice is made with rice vinegar (so it’s safe, not all sushi rice is), and they’ll substitute tamari for soy sauce for dipping. Overall they’re very aware of what can cause issues and have been super helpful and accommodating.
Little Goat – They also have a gluten free menu if you ask for it. It’s actually a pretty large menu with tons of good stuff.
Nico – If you ignore the pastas, there’s actually some gluten free food on the menu. Crudo, risotto, all excellent.
Vera – Most of the menu is already gluten free.
Tanta – Like Vera, quite a bit of the menu is already gluten free. Our server though was pretty well versed in what would work and what wouldn’t (and when he wasn’t sure he always got a clear answer from the kitchen).
Lou Manati’s – They make a gluten free thin crust that’s really good. Marissa actually likes it better than their regular thin crust.

So going out is pretty much what I thought it would be. A little more advance research/communication, a little more quizzing of our servers. Note that I haven’t even gotten into issues of cross-contamination. This is a huge issue for those with a true celiac diagnosis. If you do have celiac and you’re reading this, please don’t take my list as absolute gospel for safe places to eat.

Like I said at the beginning, we may not need to stick to this for much longer. Obviously if we don’t that will make life easier. But if we do, I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far and we’ll continue to learn. And that’s been the positive aspect to to this, it’s been a great learning experience. Not just about celiac itself, but how people live with it and about how the rest of the world is adapting and catching up. I’d also add that sometimes in “foodie culture” there can be a dismissive attitude towards some food allergies. Sometimes this is well deserved, especially given the fad nature of some dietary restrictions. Unfortunately gluten free has become one of these fads, and my fear is that it will lead people to take the needs of those with celiac less seriously. Please don’t. Celiac is serious business. It literally erodes your intestines. When people with celiac get “glutened” it causes intense and unpleasant issues that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So on the one hand, don’t dismiss allergies without doing your research. But on the other hand, please don’t go gluten free because you think all the cool kids are doing it. See a doctor, see a dietitian, do what’s right for your body.