Reservations for none

The tourists strolling through downtown Asheville on a weekend night might appear to be window-shopping or people-watching, but that's not all those wide-eyed visitors are doing: More often than not, they're waiting for a table.

An hourlong wait for a restaurant meal isn't uncommon in Asheville, where locals' laissez-faire attitudes toward reservations and the universal tourist tendency to wait until dinnertime to find somewhere to eat have conspired to make walk-in traffic a misnomer. Spur-of-the-moment diners are accustomed to walking around the block, getting to know the hostess and having a drink before being seated.

Getting to your table: Heather Springsteen, the hostess at Zambra, which accepts reservations through OpenTable.com. Photo by Jonathan Welch

"No one makes reservations anymore," grumbles Mark Rosenstein, who owned The Market Place for three decades.

Studies back up Rosenstein's claims: According to a survey conducted last year by Cornell University's Sheryl Kimes, a mere 12 percent of diners say they always make reservations for a social dinner — meaning that nine times out of 10, a party's arrival is a complete surprise to a restaurant. That's a problem for higher-end eateries that pride themselves on creating flawless dining experiences for their guests, since coordinating a peanut-free dish or finding comfortable seating for ten on the fly is a tricky proposition.

"Reservations prevent anyone from getting here and not getting what they want right away," says Grand Bohemian Hotel general manager John Luckett, who oversees operations at the hotel's Red Stag Grill.

Most of Luckett's tables are still secured by reservation — a statistic that might echo Kimes' finding that a full 70 percent of diners report making reservations for special-occasion dinners such as birthday celebrations and bachelorette parties. Like many restaurants, Red Stag has pursued electronic solutions to the problems posed by diners' pesky inability to plan ahead. Hotel guests receive e-mail reminders to make their dinner reservations before they even get to Asheville. Once they've checked-in, they can use their television remotes to make reservations on-screen. And for folks who aren't spending the night, the Red Stag is also listed with OpenTable.com, a leading online reservations system.

"There are even apps for the iPhone now," Luckett says.

Heather Springsteen, a hostess at Zambra, one of the 14 other Asheville restaurants that accept reservations through OpenTable.com, says the downtown tapas destination has such robust walk-in traffic that it closes its virtual reservations book when the restaurant opens each day. "Otherwise, we'd be booked solid," Springsteen says.

Which, admittedly, sounds like a good thing. But most restaurants can't risk alienating the non-reservations crowd, which has become a fairly diverse group. Decades ago, only the naïve and disorganized went out on the town without making reservations first. Nowadays, the notion of choosing a restaurant a week in advance strikes many diners as peculiar. How could they forecast their mood? Or unilaterally rule out the opportunity to eat where an intriguing jazz-funk quartet happens to be playing?

Even diners who go through the motions of making reservations are apt to become rather impetuous, with so many restaurants getting burned by no-shows that most hostesses' job descriptions include making reservation confirmation calls — and, sometimes, collecting credit card numbers along with reservations.

In a clear illustration of who's still making reservations, a Google search for the phrase "restaurant reservations" lists Epcot, the Space Needle and Benihana among related terms. Diners at trendier establishments like Zambra are far less keen on the practice.

Springsteen suspects the element of adventure inherent in not plotting one's dinner ahead of time has become a critical component of the eating-out experience. She reports that diners actually relish the waits that result from nobody making reservations.

"People expect to wait," she says. "We have a full bar and live music, so they're hanging out, having fun. It becomes part of the experience."

With the costs of eating out on the rise, diners apparently want to wring as much entertainment as possible from the event — even if it means standing at a crowded bar for 45 minutes. A busy bar lends so much credence to a restaurant's status as a "scene" that some local restaurants, such as The Lobster Trap, don't accept any reservations for small parties.

But a backlash may be brewing: There are limits to even the coolest diners' patience. To better serve its customers, The Admiral in West Asheville last year started taking reservations. The concept wasn't an immediate hit: For the first few months, the only evidence of the new policy was a "reserved" sign on the odd open table. Reservations accounted for no more than 15 percent of the restaurant's business, owner Drew Wallace says.

"But, you know, it's changed," Wallace adds. "Friday and Saturday of last week, we were completely booked with reservations."

On weeknights, about half of The Admiral's tables are spoken for before service begins.

"Sometimes your only option is to sit at the bar and hope something opens up," Wallace says. "It's weird telling our walk-ins that all our tables are full."

Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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