Like most people, Joe and I always enjoy a good meal. One of our favorite restaurants in the world is Bern’s Steak House, in Tampa. Joe’s dad was the one who “discovered” it, 30+ years ago, when he and his family were visiting Tampa for Joe to receive a special award. He (Joe’s dad) asked the concierge at their hotel, the Hyatt Tampa Bay (now the Grand Hyatt), what very well might be the most brilliant travel question ever, and the rest is history.
As coincidence would have it, when Joe and I relocated from the New York metropolitan area to Florida, we initially lived in Tampa. We went to Bern’s for special occasions – to celebrate our moving to Florida, birthdays, etc. It was simple back then – just call and make a reservation for a few days in advance. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
As technology improved, Bern’s, like other places, went to an online reservation system. It was still easy enough to get a reservation that way; they used a rolling 90-day window, and we just used our computers or phones to make a reservation at the restaurant for a few weeks out.
Then Covid hit and Bern’s was closed for a time. The restaurant is kind of cavelike, with several dining rooms and only one window (inaccessible to guests, no less) in the entire building. So we didn’t even try to go back until we were fully vaccinated and cases in the area were relatively low.
Unfortunately, it suddenly wasn’t all that easy to get a reservation. Instead of a rolling 90-day window, it had been cut to a 60-day window. And unless you made a reservation EXACTLY 60 days out, EXACTLY at midnight, all that was left were super early 5pm or super late 9pm reservations; and even those were gone after a few hours. We learned how to work within the confines of the updated system and situation – making sure one of us was awake at midnight, 60 days out – but it wasn’t super convenient.
Apparently a lot of people have had the same problem as us, with several threads on Reddit, Yelp’s forums etc., about trying to get a reservation. And now finally a local radio station, Wild 94.1, has discovered what the problem is.
In the summer of 2021, a new website and app hit the market: Appointment Trader. Calling itself “the marketplace for appointments and reservations,” it allows people to sell their reservations via a bidding system. The more popular a restaurant or reservation time is, the higher the lowest bid (so a bid to eat at 10pm will be lower than one for 8pm. A bid to eat at The French Laundry will be more than one to go to Scum and Villainy Cantina [the latter is a Star Wars themed bar in Los Angeles. We went there a few years back]). They cover restaurants (and a few other entities) from all around the world. And, of course, Appointment Trader takes a cut of whatever the highest bid is.
Appointment Trader says it’s is for people who have a reservation and no longer want/need it, but really, once money is involved, you really have to question how many reservations a person will gather in the hopes of selling them (a person who appears to work for Appointment Trader claims that’s not the case: “AppointmentTrader will review your listing before publishing it to the Marketplace, anonymously. We take scalping seriously and monitor user profile history and will reject reservations and appointments that appear to have been created for the sole purpose of reselling them.” But I suspect there could be plenty of ways to get around that).
Do I think it’s fair? I don’t think anyone should be selling a reservation; it’s just a place saver and I don’t think that’s something to be bartered. When we had reservations for Bern’s that we weren’t going to be able to use due to extenuating circumstances, I “put it out there” on Facebook.
The reservation was claimed by a friend of ours, without money or “bidding”; I just gave it away. Had no one been interested in it, we would have simply canceled the reservation; I’m sure some lucky stranger would be happy to get a last-minute 7pm reservation for a Saturday night.
About a week after their original post, Wild 94.1 did a follow up about Bern’s reservations and Appointment Trader. Bern’s wanted it on the record that they have nothing to do with this company, and don’t condone what they’re doing. In fact, they’re apparently looking into this scheme. Said Bern’s:
We take this matter very seriously. As such, added measures have been taken with our reservation software company, Open Table, that is actively investigating AppointmentTrader.com with both their fraud and legal teams to ensure that our reservation process is not misrepresented or compromised by any computer-generated agents / bots.
And they added to their “Reservations” page:
Bern’s Steak House does not condone the selling of our reservations and will never offer reservations that are available to book outside of our direct booking platforms via OpenTable through our website or by phone
How to get reservations for popular restaurants
Meanwhile, until and unless outlets like Appointment Trader are stopped, reservations at popular restaurants are still going to be difficult to get. Here are some ways to combat that:
Do your research & be ready
Bern’s accepts reservations exactly 60 days out, starting at midnight. The French Laundry, in Yountville CA, accepts reservations a month out. Nobu Malibu also only takes them 30 days out. The calendar for Delilah, at the Wynn in Las Vegas, goes out 7.5 months.
Know when reservations for the date you want become available, and be ready to make them THEN. That may involve setting your alarm to make a reservation in the middle of the night.
Sure, that 7pm dinner reservation on a Saturday night would be awesome, but there aren’t any more reservations at that time. 5pm is available, though. So is 9pm. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the greater good. 😉
Call/check reservations a few days out
Didn’t get the reservation you wanted “X” number of days/weeks/months out? Check again the week you want to go – every day. Call if they suggest calling an option (they may be able to override the system). You never know when someone might cancel their upcoming reservation. I mean, I did…others might, too.
Try to go as a walk-up
Some restaurant fills up every single spot via reservations and no walk-ins are allows (Disney’s Victoria & Albert’s is like that. BTW, if you’ve never gone, GO…it’s amazeballs. Here’s what our experience was like a few years ago). Or there may be some “no shows” and they have some tables to unexpectedly fill. But many restaurants, even popular ones, keep some tables open for walk-ups. It’s worth a shot. Just have a Plan B ready, just in case they say they’re 100% full that evening.
Eat at the bar
If a popular restaurant has a bar, sitting and eating at the bar seats (and sometimes [but not always] the entire area surrounding the bar) usually don’t require reservations. It may not be QUITE as fancy, but the food will be just as good.
*** Thanks, Normy! (BOO-YA!)
Feature Photo: Bern’s Steak House
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