This article originally appeared in the September 8, 2006, edition of the Orlando Sentinel. Figures in the story are no longer accurate, and some restaurants mentioned have closed.
To the attic already full of outdated relics rendered quaint by the digital age, consign now the restaurant reservation book.
The days of calling a restaurant to make a reservation and hearing someone flipping through the pages are coming to an end. In fact, the days of calling the restaurant may be numbered. More restaurants are computerizing their reservations systems, using software from companies such as OpenTable.com to track their customers and manage their dining rooms. And it allows customers to log on, choose a restaurant and book a table without having to phone and be placed on hold.
But it might surprise you to know that even if you've never heard of OpenTable.com, you could be in its database. If you've ever called a restaurant and given your name and phone number, it's possible that information was entered into a computer. If the person taking the reservation requested both a first and last name, it's probable. If they offered to send you an e-mail confirmation of the reservation, it's a sure thing. Not only is Big Brother watching, he's also taking your dinner reservation.
Well, maybe it isn't as dire as that.
Bill and Adrienne Katz think it's a great system. The Orlando couple discovered OpenTable last year while traveling to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A relative in San Francisco, where OpenTable is based, told them about it, and they used it to reserve restaurants for their trip, including a last-minute booking at Mustards, a popular Napa Valley restaurant.
When they returned home last year, they found that about a dozen Orlando-area restaurants were on theOpenTable system.
Now there are about 50 participating restaurants in Central Florida, ranging from Carrino's Italian trattoria to the elegant Dux at Peabody Orlando. And the number is growing: There are currently 5,300 participating restaurants in 44 states and a few major cities around the world. Last year the company noted an increase of 65 percent in the number of restaurants that signed up for the service. Last month the system seated 1.3 million diners.
Other Web sites, such as Dinnerbroker.com, also offer reservations, but OpenTable is the only one that operates in real time.
Edward Nickell, Peabody's sommelier and general manager at Dux, is a fan of OpenTable. "I think it's the most amazing invention ever," he says. Nickell became a convert while working at Primo, the Italian restaurant at Grande Lakes Resort. "We had it three years," says Nickell, who became accustomed to the way the software managed the dining room. The manager or host can go into the system, he explains, and assign the waiter stations, keep track of when guests were seated and know approximately when they will be finished. The program will alert the host's station when dessert is served so the manager will know another table is about to open up.
If you told the restaurant it was your anniversary when you made the reservation, click, that little detail goes in the database. Next year, don't be surprised if the restaurant sends a note inviting you to return for another celebratory visit. Did you order a bottle of champagne? The waiter may ask if you would like the same vintage this year. Before, this information had to be noted in the voluminous reservation book, which Dux was still using until a few months ago.
Nickell says he had fallen in love with the computerized system, and when he joined the Peabody a few months ago and "saw that book," his heart sank. The hotel's Dux and Capriccio restaurants recently went online.
There are plenty of area restaurants still using one of "those books." The array of Central Florida restaurants on OpenTable is varied but limited. There are few "neighborhood" establishments that have made the financial investment to sign up, which also means there are few ethnic choices. But those behind the system hope that it will be so attractive to use that diners will choose to visit those restaurants that feature the service.
Gregg Fontecchio, director of food and beverage at the Grand Bohemian, says, "It's fantastic." Besides tracking guests and their preferences, he says, diners can link to the restaurant's Web site, where they can print recipes for favorite items. Bill Katz says a feature he likes allows him to make a reservation and then e-mail, through OpenTable.com, an invitation to friends to join him for dinner.
The good news for those who value their privacy is that a lot of the personal information is optional. In fact, you can log on to OpenTable.com and use the system without giving an e-mail address. And if you choose to leave an address for the convenience -- and proof -- of a confirmation, you may specify that you do not wish to receive other e-mails from the restaurant or OpenTable. Even if you say it's OK, say restaurant owners and officials atOpenTable, the e- mail addresses are never sold to third parties, so there's no fear of dining-related spam.
And some diners might welcome the opportunity to leave details. Someone with a food allergy can note that in the reservation. But that information is stored only at that restaurant -- no data is shared between restaurants, so if you told the staff at Primo that you break out in hives if you eat scallops, don't assume employees know that if you make an online reservation at Adair's. And if you ordered a bottle of Taittinger at Dux, don't expect the sommelier at Emeril's to know that's what you like.
As an enticement, customers who register fully with OpenTable can earn credits toward dining certificates that can be used at any of the 5,300 participating restaurants nationwide. Think of them as frequent-diner points.
And all of this is free to the consumer; OpenTable makes money from fees paid by participating restaurants. There is an initial setup fee, $1,295, says Ann Shepherd, senior director of consumer marketing from OpenTable. Restaurants also pay a monthly fee of about $200 and $1 per reservation placed online. If a diner calls the restaurant directly, OpenTable is paid about 25 cents per person.
There are other sites that claim to offer reservations online. Dinnerbro ker.com shows Dux as one of the restaurants diners may reserve through them, although Dux's Nickell says he is not aware of DinnerBroker and the restaurant has not received any reservations through it since he has been manager.
According to Shepherd, those sites operate under an allocation system -- participating restaurants make a number of tables available for the site to book. But the main difference is that OpenTable is the only online site that is "live." "It's real time," she says, "when you search you're actually seeing what's available." And you can make your reservation any time of the day or night, not just during the restaurant's business hours when the phones are answered.
One thing you can't do is see a layout of the restaurant and point and click on a particular table. She says that's because restaurants frequently pull tables together and change the dining- room configuration to accommodate different groups, so any seat you might choose may not exist on the evening you dine.
The system cannot guarantee a table. Emeril's Restaurant at CityWalk is the most popular local restaurant onOpenTable.com. When I went to the Web site and tried to book a table for an upcoming Friday night at 8, I was told no tables were available, which is not surprising. OpenTable offered a chart of other restaurants in the area that had availability at that time, another helpful feature that users like.
But instead of choosing another option, I called Emeril's directly. Yes, the woman on the phone said, there were tables available at 7, 7:30, 8 and 8:30 p.m. I told her I would like a table for two at 8, then I gave her the name I use to make reservations.
She asked me if I was still at the same phone number I gave the last time I dined there.