Have Reservation Apps Forever Changed New York Bar Culture?
The Pros and Cons of the New Era of Scheduled Bar-Hopping.
Boo Paterson has been a regular at Raines Law Room, the speakeasy-like cocktail bar in the Flatiron District, since it opened in 2009. But she refuses to book a seat through Resy, the reservation app that the bar began using during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, she emails Meaghan Dorman, Raines’ bar director.
It’s a bit of a hollow victory, since Ms. Dorman then puts Ms. Paterson’s name into the Resy system anyway and Ms. Hamilton soon gets a confirmation email from the service. But, for this particular barfly, it’s the principle of the thing.
“It’s a bar,” said Ms. Paterson, who is originally from Scotland and has worked in many lines, include hospitality, journalism, voice acting and, yes, circus ring master. “I’m old school. I don’t want to have to book to go to a bloody bar. It’s ridiculous.” She likened the online experience of securing a bar reservation to making an appointment with the DMV. “Why would I do that when I’m going to go get drunk?”
Ms. Dorman is sympathetic, even though she uses Resy at all four of the bars she runs, including Raines Law Room at the William, Dear Irving and Dear Irving on Hudson.
“Sometimes I want a bar to just be a bar,” said Ms. Dorman, “and I don’t like that you have to put your phone number down everywhere. So, I struggle with that, honestly, both professionally and personally.” (Full disclosure: I have written for the editorial arm of the Resy website several times.)
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Ms. Paterson’s hardline stance is one that is increasingly difficult to maintain in New York as more and more bars adopt Resy or similar reservation apps.
The space reservation apps occupy in the restaurant world feels relatively natural. Reservations for restaurants have been pro forma for decades and it doesn’t make much difference if those commitments are secured via phone or app. But the apps’ presence in the bar world—indeed the very phenomenon of bar reservations in general—is a trickier matter. Bars are the realm of the drop by and the pop in. They are a safe home to spontaneity and the lack of definite plans. People may choose to bar hop, staying for just one drink, or remain long enough to close the joint. Moreover, bars are historically places where some people, for a wide variety of reasons, may prefer to remain anonymous, slipping in and out like a shadow. Any bar owner in the 20th century or before who asked a stranger’s name and phone number the moment they sat on a bar stool would likely have lost a customer and may have earned a punch in the nose.
But the Covid-19 pandemic altered many aspects of the service industry. One of them was how bars managed their clientele flow. A spokesperson for Resy told me that, following the contact tracing and capacity restrictions implemented during COVID, the app had an influx of businesses, including bars, start using Resy for its reservation and guestbook tools. (There are other reservation apps, like OpenTable and Tock, but, among New York bars, Resy is by far the dominant one.)
I knew things had permanently taken a turn one day when I visited a new Manhattan boîte at opening time. The joint was white hot at the time, so I thought I’d avoid the crush at the door by arriving at 5 p.m., and enjoy a quiet drink at the bar. I scored that stool at the bar, but, within a minute, the hostess was behind me asking for my phone number. Minutes after leaving, I received an email from Resy asking if I’d enjoyed myself.
What had been intended as a solitary, stealth drink had been transformed into a tracked visit. There was seemingly no escape from the bar’s reservation system. I suppose I could have refused to divulge my digits, but it is hard to pull such a move without coming off like a prig.
Attaboy, the small, well-known Lower East Side cocktail bar, never took reservations prior to Covid. But when pandemic regulations dictated how much of the interior could be seated, the bar adopted Resy as the only fair and safe way to handle patronage. “We were very happy to nix it as soon as we were up to 100% capacity,” said co-owner Sam Ross. “I’d never go back to Resy for Attaboy.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Ross does use Resy at his other New York place, Temple Bar, though only until 9 p.m. when the bar takes on a more club-like atmosphere. After that, Mr. Ross prefers to use waitlists and welcome walk-ins. “It’s really a ‘horses for courses’ situation,” he said.
Grand Army, a cocktail bar in Boerum Hill, began using Resy not too long after it opened in 2015. But it became much more reliant on the service during Covid times, said co-owner Julian Brizzi. “Not only for just guaranteeing reservations,” he said, “but also for getting people information about what we needed them to do in terms of protocol and state and federal regulations and vaccines and indoor/outdoor.”
Still, Mr. Brizzi tries to maintain a balance. About thirty percent of Grand Army’s business is from Resy. That is by design. The bar always keeps a few tables free. “The majority of our guests at Grand Army are walk-in,” he said. Sometimes, those walk-ins are asked for their name and number so they can be plugged into the system. “People do decline and, at least for us, that is not a problem. We’re always willing to seat people without capturing their data. Most people have no problem with it. There is the occasional curmudgeon.”
Felicia Rosenblum, who works in tech and lives near Grand Army, is a longtime regular. She’ll use Resy when she goes to bars that aren’t in her neighborhood, just to know she’ll have a table waiting and not risk a long wait. But at Grand Army, she prefers impromptu visits.
“I think it’s good and bad,” said Ms. Rosenblum of bar reservations. “I think it’s great for giving the option to customers to keep the bars full. And I think that’s why Grand Army is popular, because there are a lot of reservations. That’s great, because we know it’s going to stay in busines. But it’s not great if you’re somewhat of a regular or local and you just want to pop by on a whim and grab a quick drink, because you don’t know if you’re going to get a spot or not.”
If there’s an hour long wait, she will sometimes walk a few more blocks and goes to The Brooklyn Inn, an old saloon where the very idea of reservations would probably be anathema.
“With The Brooklyn Inn, the more pen and paper the better for their aesthetic.” said Mr. Brizzi. “Also, they just don’t have any need to structure things around reservations. The only advantage would be to get guest’s information, but I don’t think The Brooklyn Inn has ever sent an email.”
Most watering holes that have adopted Resy are cocktail bars, as opposed to beer bars, wine bars or just plain old neighborhood bar bars. This is because of the more formal nature of cocktail bars, which tend to be destinations. “It’s probably their main plan for the night,” said Ms. Dorman of cocktail bar customers. She added that there is not a lot of standing room at many cocktail bars.
“I think in some ways it makes sense to me if it’s totally a sit-down cocktail experience,” said Robbie Skoronski, an architect who moved to the city in 2021. “More artisanal, more creative places. I understand it for those types of bars. But I think the majority of times people are looking to have a good time with their friends, not necessarily to have a crafted experience.”
Julie Reiner began using Resy at all three of her bars when the most recent, Milady’s in SoHo, opened last fall. The other two bars are Clover Club and Leyenda, both in Brooklyn. But she is selective in her use of Resy, employing it only for large parties.
“It may be partially old dog, new tricks,” she said. “But I don’t want to have to hold a table if somebody walks in. Clover is very busy. When two people leave I want to wipe off that table and put two butts in those seats.”
Ms. Reiner recently got a taste of the Resy experience from the other end. While visiting a restaurant in the Financial District, she spotted some free seats at the main bar, walked right up and sat down. “The hostess came up and said, ‘Do you have a reservation? What’s your name? I need your phone number!,” Ms. Reiner said.
“It takes away the charm of sitting at the bar,” she added. (According to Resy, it is up to the individual venue as to whether they choose to register walk-in guests into the reservation system.)
At this point, however, it is probably too late to shift this trend into reverse. Resy’s rise in bars may have been driven by owners wishing to better handle what Mr. Brizzi called “guest management.” and “guest interface.” But now those managed guests have become accustomed to it.
“People got a lot more used to making sure they had a spot at the place they were going to, versus rolling the dice and trying to walk in,” said Ms. Dorman.
As for Boo Patterson, she doesn’t need Resy to make sure they’ll always be a bar stool waiting for her.
“I am a very friendly person, because I work in hospitality myself occasionally,” she said. “I tend to become friends with the people in the bars where I go all the time. People ask, ‘How do you get into there?’ Well, it’s because I actually do give a shit about the people who work there. So, I guess, that is my reservation system.”
Do you have thoughts about the use of reservation apps in bars? I’d like to hear them. (And the bars that use them might want to hear them as well.) Please leave a comment below.
Odds and Ends…
July in National Hot Dog Month. And, so, the hot dog-oriented articles were out in mass last week, including this one and this one and this one. Your humble, veteran hot dog critic was out there as well, slinging hot-dog, road-trip recommendations for New York magazine. This also seems a good time to link back to this 2020 article for Grub Street, just in case you are specifically Jersey bound… Le Lion-Bar de Paris, the celebrated cocktail bar in Hamburg, Germany, will celebrated its 15th anniversary on July 10th. Gin Basil Smashes all around!…Beefeater Gin has released Beefeater Crown Royal, an expression “Inspired by the iconic jewels housed in the Tower of London.” It is described as “an elevated version of our signature house style,” and features the addition of refreshing grapefruit and a heightened abv of 50%. It’s not available in the U.S., so look for it on your summer European travels .… Katana Kitten, the beloved Greenwich Village cocktail bar, will be celebrating five years in business on July 18th… The Gem, the Lake George area cocktail bar and restaurant, kicked off their second summer season by introducing a new vintage airstream camper in their backyard garden! To-go food and cocktails will be served from the camper… Sam’s Pizzeria, the nearly century-old Italian eatery in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, will close for the summer after the July 17 service. Go get that pizza while you can!… Note to all motels and hotels across the U.S.—Go see Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and consider installing Martini vending machines similar to the one featured in the film… Jason Scott, Eddy Buckingham, Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross (the latter two of Attaboy and Temple Bar fame) have opened the Bushwick nightclub Danger, Danger. Ross told New York magazine, “We agreed on a harebrained scheme of doing a rock club in Bushwick, with a huge tequila and mezcal situation, cheap beers and shots, and loud music that goes until 4 a.m.” Sharp-eyed cocktail globalists will notice certain connections to other bygone bars. Scott considers it “a spiritual successor to Frankie’s Pizza, a late-night music bar that he owned in Sydney.” (I went once. Basement, pizza, loud music, crowds.) The hand-shaped door handle is from Scott’s Manhattan restaurant Gran Tivoli, which closed during Covid. And the frozen Penicillin is from Ross and McIlroy’s Diamond Reef, which closed in 2021.