Without Reservations

In the new world of cuisine, it’s first come, first served.

It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday on Whyte Avenue, and there’s a line-up forming outside of Meat, one of Old Strathcona’s newest restaurants. A passerby might think it’s foolish to stand around waiting, but these patrons are in the know; they want dibs on a dinner service that starts at 5 p.m. And Meat doesn’t take reservations.

Recently opened restaurants, such as Meat in Old Strathcona along with Bar Bricco and Rostizado across the river, are striking out against the commonly held belief that reserved tables mean good business.

“I can tell you, from a business perspective, that reservations are a risky business,” says Saylish Haas, co-owner of Meat, “because you’re just hoping that people will show up and fulfill their reservation requirements; meanwhile you’re turning away people who may walk in the door.” 

But the potential financial loss is only one reason many new Edmonton restaurants establish a walk-in policy. According to Haas, it’s also about the emergence of new dining concepts. Meat, for instance, is modeled after classic Texas barbecue joints, while Rostizado’s concept is based on the Mexican equivalent. You would be hard pressed to find a similar eatery abroad that isn’t lined up out the door. In fact, that’s usually a sign that the food is worth the wait.

Though, according to Haas, the wait isn’t actually that long, thanks again to how Meat prepares its food. It’s Texas-style “built for speed” food that’s been smoking all day and nearly done by the time people come to the door. She says the environment is fast and casual, and reservations would change that atmosphere.

Daniel Braun, co-owner of Rostizado, says he knew adopting a specific reservation policy – it only allows reservations for groups of eight or more – was the way to go based on his experience with Tres Carnales, the restaurant for which he and his partners are best known. There, you’re hard pressed to find a time where there isn’t a line at the 42-seater restaurant – but it always moves quick. Based on that, Braun knew making Rostizado, a 70-seat restaurant, almost reservation-free was a good idea. But the trick was figuring out how to keep customers from losing their patience at the door since wait times can stretch to an hour or more. The solution was a phone application called No Wait, which allows customers to check to see if tables are available. Then, after arriving at the restaurant, it will alert customers 10 minutes before their table is ready.

But that doesn’t mean that reservations are unheard of at Rostizado either. The restaurant is designed in sections, and one such area holds 10 seats that are free to be reserved.

The catch? Customers must reserve the table with a credit card and a small contract. And though no deposit is expected, a charge will be made to the cards of those who bail out at the last minute. “We work with small margins in this industry, so if that minimal part is not covered in order to make ends meet, it really hurts the industry. Some restaurants have closed over this,” says Braun.

Meanwhile at the Corso 32 spinoff, Bar Bricco, chef and owner Daniel Costa’s opinion on reservations is clearly divided. Corso 32 is notorious for bookings stretching six weeks into the future. For Costa, it’s a good thing, as he can plan his dinner services accordingly, but it isn’t without its pitfalls. “We wanted to be a food-focused small room with tiny tables and now – when some people wait two months to get in – they walk in and think they’re coming to the Ritz-Carlton or whatever,” says Costa.

So when he opened Bar Bricco next door to his fully booked establishment, he aimed for a casual atmosphere. “We basically wanted it to be the exact opposite of reservations,” says Costa. 

With the ease of customers filing in and out of the small room at a regular pace, there’s almost always a spot inside – just the way Costa wants it. And Costa hints at his next idea for his new, as-of-yet-unnamed 80-seat venture – a restaurant with half walk-ins and half reservations.

So while new restaurants in the city become more and more conceptual, skewing away from traditional reservation-heavy eateries, the old-guard foodies may not have to panic just yet. For every Meat, Rostizado and Bar Bricco, there’s the reservation-taking RGE RD and Woodwork. But with more culinary concepts to choose from, and Edmonton’s growing appetite for them, one should never assume. It’s best to check by phone, or by searching outside for the lineup.

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