No reservations? No thanks. I’m not lining up for shit.

Line Up

There was a review this morning in Toronto Life for the new Parkdale “hotspot” Electric Mud which, surprisingly, rated the bourbon and barbecue joint a mere 1.5 stars. I say surprisingly because, since its inception, Electric Mud has received a series of just-short-of-rave reviews from most Toronto media outlets who pay attention to such things. For example, the Globe and Mail called the food “obscenely, shockingly good,” NOW noted simply that “Electric Mud Rocks,” and even blogTO offered some reluctant praise, admitting the fare was “pretty fucking good.” Everyone, with the exception of Toronto Life I guess, seems fairly enamoured with Electric Mud. And with a bourbon-heavy cocktail list, barbecue on the menu, a classic rock soundtrack, and Bellwoods beer on tap, Electric Mud seems to me to be just about everything I could ask for in a bar/eatery.

I should be itching to go there and see what all the fuss is about.

But I’m not.

The reason is simple: Electric Mud is yet another Toronto establishment that has seen fit to do away with what would seem to be one of the most basic elements of a dining establishment: Reservations.

For some reason, a growing number of restaurants in this city seem to think it adds cachet to do away with the ability to make sure patrons can get a table at a time that’s convenient for them. I don’t get it it. It doesn’t make a place cooler, it’s just fucking annoying.

The city’s restaurant goers however, seem to disagree with me. Indeed, the owners of Electric Mud, Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan, likely opted for the no reservations model given that they previously had such success with it at their other establishment, Grand Electric. If people were willing to wait hours to come in and eat tacos, it stands to reason that people would be willing to queue up for BBQ, they must have thought.

And they were right.

In its first few days of operation, lineups at Electric Mud as long as three hours were not unheard of.

Three fucking hours.

I’m sure the barbecue is great, but I wouldn’t wait three hours to have a tumor removed (Seriously, after maybe 45 minutes in the waiting room, I’d probably throw down my copy of US Weekly and just say, “Fuck this, I’ll deal with the cancer.”)

Why are we willing to accept this?

For me, going to a restaurant is about service. When I go out for a meal, I want to be served. I’d like to walk in and go directly to my seat and have my dining needs taken care of. That’s what I pay for. Why is it becoming increasingly acceptable to put up with less service in exchange for decent food?

“So when you walk in the server kicks you in the neck and you have to sit on construction rubble, but their coleslaw is the best.”

No thanks.

I understand that it probably saves money to avoid reservation-taking (there’s no requirement for a host or hostess and I guess you save money on pens) but with places like Electric Mud, that are packed from open to close, I’m going to go ahead and assume you can cough up some dough for a minimum wage hostess and a fucking notebook.

I also get that the prescription reservation websites like Open Table charge a fee, but seriously, when you’re in the customer service industry, you need to make sacrifices to provide customer service. When I have time to go out for dinner, I’d like to know it’s a guarantee. I don’t want to have to gamble or wait for half an hour by the door, leering at people finishing their meal and willing them to eat faster. Similarly, I don’t want to be glared at by hungry people while I’m eating and I don’t want to feel rushed so my server can improve his/her turnover.

A restaurant should be grateful for a person’s patronage, not the other way around. Frankly I find places that ask you to put up with wait times vaguely arrogant. It’s like saying, “You want to come in here and give us your business and money? You’re going to wait an hour.”

Well, I won’t. I’m going somewhere else.

9 thoughts on “No reservations? No thanks. I’m not lining up for shit.

  1. Hi Ben,
    I am a recent subscriber to your blog and have enjoyed your previous posts.
    I have an honest question. Is this really the style of post that you want to represent your journalistic style?
    I mean no offense, but it reads like an angry comment not a thoughtful post. The type of comment that makes me avoid the comment sections under most restaurant reviews.

    I think that if you took a less personal/reactionary look at this topic, you would see that these restaurants are just trying out a different model. Possibly in reaction to situations where a highly anticipated restaurant opens, and diners need to make a reservation weeks or months in advance.

    This situation, which I’m sure you’ve seen before, results in a few negative consequences:
    1. Most of the patrons end up anticipating their visit to the new restaurant for weeks while they wait for their reservation to come up. When they finally arrive, it has to be very hard to live up to their expectations.
    2. When people invariably cancel their reservations last minute, there is a reduced chance of a walk-in filling those seats, because everyone knows they are booked so far in advance.
    3. I think this is the worst one, the patrons who know enough to make the reservation and are willing to wait weeks for it are the likely to be the snobbiest, most entitled patrons you could find. If anything is out of place, they will write a nasty comment in the comment section of the good review that made the place so popular. 🙂

    So, what is the alternative? No reservations!
    I think this actually has a very positive effect on the whole experience for both diner and the house. Firstly, all the seats are almost always full. This is just good business. More importantly, the type of people willing to either show up early to get a table or to just go have a drink and enjoy their evening in the neighbourhood while they wait are by definition more patient and gracious guests. As a diner in a place like this, I just have the general feeling that I can relax and have a good time and everyone else is there to do the same.I think one of the things that turns many people off about exploring interesting and creative cuisine, is having to go rub elbows with a bunch of judgmental snobs in a stuffy exclusive restaurant.

    With respect to Grand Electric/Electric Mud, these places are quite small. If there is an empty table due to a no-show reservation, that would be a fairly substantial chunk of their dinner service gone to waste. This would inevitably drive their prices up and out of the budget of the young hip crowd that they are obviously targeting as their market. And anyways, the feel of the place and the service is more of a lunch counter than an exclusive restaurant. And that’s just the style. I, for one, think it’s refreshing. Having been to both, I would have to say that we were treated very well by the staff. Their customer service was great.

  2. Totally agree! Restaurants should respect their customers and provide reservation service. But there are reasons why restaurateurs prefer no reservations beyond what you described in your piece:

    1) It drives buzz! Nothing like being “one of the chosen few” who actually got into the newest, hottest restaurant to add to a diner’s experience (and stories afterwards).
    2) It guarantees non-stop, full occupancy. Reservations are great for the customer, but mean a certain amount of risk for the restaurant owner. If they can’t get reservations for the whole night, or worst of all, if someone makes a reservation and cancels without letting them know, they lose out on valuable revenue. A solid line of potential patrons right outside your door the whole night means full occupancy all night.
    3) It allows them to make money through side projects, like the Black Hoof, and their “Cocktail Bar” or whatever it’s called across the street. Show up, add your name to the list and go across the street to wait for your table, purchasing a few drinks at a bar that just happens to be owned by the same people.

  3. Thanks Dylan for your considered response. These are all good points–and I wasn’t trying to pick on the Electric Mud folks, the review I read was just the catalyst.

    Anyway, while I agree there’s a case to made against a reservation-only restaurant, I disagree that the alternative is no reservations at all. I think it’s not impossible to take at least some reservations. Half of your seating maybe? That way, even if it’s scheduled a month down the road, everyone’s got a chance to try your food. Try telling new parents, for example, that their night out for cheap BBQ will take up four hours of their (and their babysitters) time.

    As for my journalistic style, I assure you I can be professional when required, but for my blog, I tend to speak off the cuff on occasion, offer my personal opinions, and even use the word “fuck” [quite] a bit.

    I assure you I’m only about half as angry as I may come off.

    Maybe three quarters. 😉

    1. Right on, I hear you. I am sure my tune will change when kids enter the picture. 🙂

      The good news for the mums and dads is that Barque and Playa Cabana (Cantina) do take reservations.

      A side note, if you like bbq, you must check out Memphis Fire in Stoney Creek, ON. It’s about a 45 min drive, but this shit is world class. I have had good bbq in the southern states and I am telling you, Memphis Fire has it fucking dialed in!

  4. Ben,

    I can understand your frustration with the lack of reservations, but honestly sometimes with these places it is to cut down on those awful times when people make reservations and don’t show up. Or they make reservations and then take up a whole table while only 1 person shows up on time, resulting in the table not being able to be flipped as fast.

    With Grand Electric, they have a waiting list so you can place your name right when they open if you weren’t lucky enough to get there at 5 to line up for an hour… But, when your table is ready they will call you. Speaking as someone who lived in Parkdale, that was easy! Line up at 5:45 and tell them I wanted a table for 2, go over to the LCBO and drink a bottle of wine at home before they called, and when they rang I just took a quick jaunt over to the restaurant.

    I know this doesn’t work for everyone but in the service industry flipping a table is key to make more money, and seeing as how these guys have been able to open two very successful restaurants in such a short amount of time it stands to reason that they get how to make money in the restaurant industry.

    That being said, I do love it when I can make a reservation but I totally understand why as a restaurant owner you wouldn’t want to give out that option.

  5. How timely! I ate at Mud last night. I should be upfront and mention that I ate a Cliff Bar an hour earlier in anticipation of having to stave off my stomach eating itself while waiting for a table. It was for 2 and we were told it would be 25 minutes. So we got on the list, then popped over to Grand Electric to see if that would be any faster. 1 hour wait. No. I loves me a baja taco and key lime pie dessert, but I wasn’t going to wait an hour.So we mozied on back to Mud and he ended up seating us right away…so only about 15 minutes in waiting. Luck was on our side. If it hadn’t been though, they serve drinks to people while they wait on the patio, and everyone waiting seemed to be having a good time. The food was yummy (albeit pricey), the service was very friendly, and we made friends with the perfect strangers we shared a table with. I had Hushpuppies for the first time, which is what I imagine a Bluth Cornballer tastes like. And the fried chicken was great. I will note, the banana cream pie holds no candle to the key lime pie at the sister restaurant. KEY LIME PIE IN A JAR IS THE BEST! If I had waited 3 hours instead of 15 minutes, it would have made everything taste much worse. Too much expectation to live up to at that point. Plus I wouldn’t have had a stomach anymore.

  6. I entirely agree with this. It’s one of the most annoying ‘fads’ to hit Toronto dining in some time. I understand the incentives for restaurant owners to do it, but simply allowing reservations for half the restaurant and saving half for walkups would solve the problem. Or alternatively, require a credit card for reservations and say that no-shows get a $25 charge per person. Again, problem solved and everyone’s happy.

  7. Look Ben, I largely agree with you. Maybe not for the reasons that one would think. These food trend driven restaurants and the echo chamber of the blogosphere make it hard for someone to talk decently about the Emperor`s New Clothes. Whether it be hamburgers, tacos, or barbeque, it seems that the newest thing is the best thing.

    Sometimes I wonder if people realize that these new trendy places did not invent tacos. Sure, they are good but are they as great as the place down the road that has been doing them for 10 years. Probably not.

    My wife and I rarely get to go out together cause babysitter and all. It is an expensive proposition. We avoid these restaurants without reservations for two reasons. 1. We need to ensure our timing. 2. Invariably, they are disappointing.

    As a foodie, foodist, whatever you call it, I am disappointed that they do not want to cater to a knowledgeable and more than willing to spend the cash couple on a night out. We are so happy to be away from the kids that we will be quiet, quick, pleasant and spend a lot of cash. Alas, I see the restaurant`s side too.

    It is sad that one of the best meals that I have had in Toronto in the last few years was at the Black Hoof that I shared with a friend where we walked in rather than planned with my partner. However, one of the most memorable meals we had was planned and reserved at a now defunct restaurant.

    Ben, I am peeved that there are so many dicks out there ducking on their reservations that it has come to this. If only there was a rating for diners like there are so many systems for restaurants. I suppose, one could always appeal to any of them that we support on twitter. Wonder how that would go down? Anyways, thanks for saying something that has been bugging me as well.

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