On most weekends, a queue begins to form outside Café Medina shortly before it opens at 9 a.m. The popular brunch restaurant, notoriously, does not take reservations and operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Diners are seated only when the entire party arrives and can expect to wait up to an hour for a table.
“When we first opened [on Beatty Street], seating was limited,” Café Medina owner Robbie Kane told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “To leave seats open while other people were standing outside, waiting and watching, was kind of unfair.”
Even after Café Medina relocated (780 Richards Street) in 2014, adding 18 dining-room seats and 20 barstools, Kane hesitated to change the restaurant’s seating policy even though he knows that some customers would prefer not to stand in line. Part of the reason why the restaurant still does not take reservations is because of the cost of using an online booking system such as OpenTable.
“There’s a cost associated with the software. There’s also the cost associated with the labour to facilitate the software,” Kane explained. “When we’re serving breakfast, less than four percent of sales are alcohol. For us, it’s also a cost-effective way for keeping prices down.”
For Chad Clark, who once worked at Café Medina and is now the general manager of Hawksworth Restaurant (801 West Georgia Street), the cost of taking reservations is high, but for the 86-seat fine-dining restaurant, it’s worthwhile.
“You’re securing your business and you can manage it down to the half-hour to ensure you’re being as efficient as possible,” Clark explained to the Straight by phone. “Reservation management is a huge ordeal. I have a full-time person just managing the phone seven days a week, even above the hostesses.”
Hawksworth accepts bookings online—using OpenTable—and by phone. Clark said reservations typically fill up at least a week or two in advance. And even though walk-in customers are rare, the restaurant welcomes them.
“Every single night, you lose a couple of reservations last-minute,” Clark said. “We do have the benefit of being in a hotel, so people are checking in last-minute and they want to grab some dinner, but in fine dining or high-end dining, people don’t usually just say, ‘Let’s go for tasting menu.’ We are 90 percent special occasion, birthdays, and anniversaries.”
According to Tannis Ling, who owns Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie (163 Keefer Street), not taking reservations is a way to maintain the neighbourhood feel of the Chinatown restaurant.
“I wanted to keep it really casual. I didn’t want to deal with the strict format of reservations,” Ling said. “A lot of people from Portland, New York, Seattle, Chicago—those kinds of food cities—they’re used to waiting. People from other parts of the world, some of them find waiting a little strange. We also find people who are older have some difficulty with that policy.”
When Ling dines at other restaurants without reservations, she arrives early and factors in the wait as part of the experience.
“If I want to go to Vij’s, for example, I kind of have in my mind that I’m going to have to wait two hours, and then when I get there and they say half an hour to an hour, I’m pleasantly surprised. Usually, when you go somewhere and you’re not expecting a wait and you’re really hungry, you get kind of anxious. I think that’s when the struggle comes.”
Just outside of downtown, the year-old Ask for Luigi (305 Alexander Street) accepts limited reservations between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and then operates on a first-come, first-served basis the rest of the night. Matthew Morgenstern, general manager of the 34-seat Italian restaurant, said that saving a third of the room for walk-ins is a way to ensure that everyone has a chance to dine at the restaurant.
“If we took reservations for every single seating that we did, we would be booked three weeks in advance,” Morgenstern told the Straight. “Taking a few reservations allows us to fill those earlier spaces. Plus, some people need that reservation—they need to know they’re getting in for a special occasion or mobility problems.”
On weekends, the wait time to dine at Ask for Luigi can run as long as three hours. Morgenstern said he always recommends customers come early to put their name down and then enjoy a drink at a neighbouring restaurant or bar before dinner.
“Make a night of it and be prepared for the wait,” he advised. “Most restaurants that don’t take reservations are trying to make you as comfortable as possible. It’s not all about us. We still want to host you. We still want for everyone to have a great experience.”