I have no data whatsoever to back me up on this, but I blame Anthony Bourdain for what seems to me the rush of restaurants (that I want to get into!) that refuse to take reservations, either altogether or for smaller groups. My theory is that the name alone of his television show – “No Reservations” – made the concept cool. By comparison, reserving a table for two at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday evening for a planned engagement seems hopelessly stodgy. Diners who do that probably also expect starched white tablecloths, escargot and an obsequious waiter in a vest and a bow tie wielding a giant pepper grinder.

Is Portland worse than other cities on this account? It’s a trend nationwide, but I’ve no real idea. I can say, though, that a no-reservations policy is in place in some of the city’s most popular restaurants, including Eventide, Cong Tu Bot, Central Provisions and Baharat. And with Memorial Day behind us, your chances of getting into these spots before next October without a lot of patience (“four-hour waits are not uncommon in the summer” at Eventide, says co-owner/chef Mike Wiley) is fast diminishing.

Restaurants that don’t take reservations infuriate me. I went public with this on Eater Maine a few years back when asked, along with several other local food writers, my “biggest restaurant grievance of 2015.” “Have restaurants that refuse to take reservations forgotten they are in the SERVICE industry?” I asked in a huff. (And that was only part of my rant.)

I am not the only person in town who would like to know my plans are firm. “We get calls almost every single night,” said Zak Taillon, longtime front-of-the-house manager at Boda, which does not accept reservations. He stopped to correct himself. “Actually we do get calls every single night from people asking to make reservations.”

That said, the policy clearly isn’t hurting these restaurants any, as the seats at Boda, and other restaurants in Portland that don’t take reservations, are usually full. Very full. A mix of social media, the nation’s collective food obsession and Portland’s status as a foodie destination, has only worsened the waits. At the same time, smartphones have eased them; go to Trendy Hotspot X the instant it opens its doors for the evening, put your name on a wait list, then go do something else until you get a text or call telling you your table is ready. (Restaurateurs and managers liken this to an actual reservations policy. Not quite, as prospective diners must be in town by 5, say, to get their names on that list, even if they don’t plan to eat until 8 p.m.)

What maddens me is this: People are busy. People are on schedules. They have small children and baby sitters at home. They have demanding careers, and house projects, and teenagers to take to soccer games, and gardens to weed, and bills to pay. People wish to take their aging parents or grandparents to dinner, who, at 87 say, lack the stamina to stick around for an hour (or two) waiting for a table to become available. Some people like to make plans. Yet these selfsame people may still want to eat at your restaurant and taste the fantastic food (or so we’ve heard) and check out the scene that has generated so much buzz.

I suspect that no-reservations policies are ageist (my theory being that, to generalize, younger people have more free time and fewer obligations than their older peers). I wonder, why call us “guests” if you don’t treat us that way? And shouldn’t the hospitality industry be hospitable? I’m sorry if reservations are challenging to manage, my feeling is, but, to be frank, that’s your problem.

Armed with my opinions, I called several Portland restaurateurs to ask about their no-reservations policies. And, well, they (mostly) disarmed me. As a bunch, they were thoughtful, funny, sympathetic, dare I say hospitable? I suspected Courtney Packer, general manager of Pai Men Miyake – and sister restaurant Miyake, where they do take reservations – of practicing on me her technique for deflecting crotchety customers who are demanding reservations. “My tactic is usually to find a way to kill them with kindness while politely saying no,” she said. Give that lady a raise. She’s good!

These restaurant owners and managers gave a similar set of reasons for adopting no-reservations policies, which add up to a blend of ambience, flow and management strains. They explained that, to them, hospitality doesn’t equate to taking a reservation. It means treating customers well – to good food and good service – once they get in the door. And while deep down I still wish everybody would copy proprietor Stella Hernandez at Lolita, who keeps about half the space for walk-ins and the rest for reservations, next time I am dining out in Portland and balk at waiting for a table, I will chew on these reasons, served with a side of understanding:

THE VIBE

No surprise, restaurants that don’t take reservations are typically casual – from the Thai street food served at Boda and the ramen at Pai Men Miyake to the menu of shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and cornmeal-crusted catfish at Hot Suppa. No-reservations policies simply reflect that, these restaurateurs say, several of whom own or manage sibling restaurants that do take reservations.

“To my mind it needs to match the cuisine or the level of formality and expectation of the experience,” explained Eventide’s Wiley. “Any restaurant where the check average is going to be higher, where you go for a celebration, I think it would be ludicrous not to plan that stuff. If the social stakes are higher, you should be able to make a reservation. If you had to make a reservation at a BBQ shack or a lobster shack, it’d be ridiculous; if there are moist towelettes involved, maybe not.”

Granted, but some of these Portland places are casual in the same way of casual Fridays at silk-stocking law firms. Sure, the vibe and food are relaxed, but studiously casual dining is the norm these days, anyway, and the ingredients are frequently top-notch and local, the cooking accomplished, and the chefs highly credentialed.

Waits are common at busy Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street in Portland – and even more so at the height of the tourist season. “Four-hour waits are not uncommon in the summer” at Eventide, co-owner/chef Mike Wiley says. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

THE SIZE

Many of these restaurants are small, seating about 40 or fewer. They need to maximize small staffs and small spaces, which, they say, is far easier to do without reservations. At Izakaya Minato, “We are small business, and I do a lot of it by myself,” says general manager Elaine Alden, who owns the place with her husband and chef Thomas Takashi Cooke. “Either you have to pay a reservation system to manage that online or else somebody else has to come in and manage it on the phone and can get back to people.” (At Fore Street, the job of reservationist is a full-time one.

Reservations systems like OpenTable charge fees for their service.) Cong Tu Bot has no host or greeter, so in between setting tables, waiting on customers and busing food, the three servers also meet and greet arriving customers. “I didn’t want to add looking at the seating chart to their responsibilities,” said Jessica Sheahan, who owns the restaurant with her husband and chef Vien Dobui.

THE WILD CARD

Restaurants that divide their menu into the standard categories of appetizer, entree, dessert find it easier to calculate how long customers are likely to occupy seats, which makes scheduling reservations less of a headache. But if you are Central Provisions, say, serving a menu of small plates meant for sharing, gauging a typical pace for meals is tricky.

“We could have a four-top come in (restaurant lingo for four diners at one table) and get one dish and be gone in a half hour,” said Paige Gould, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Chris, and is director of operations, “or on the other side, we can sometimes have a two-top come in and be there for three hours.” When Central Provisions opened in 2014, it did take reservations. That didn’t work out, she said. “We were making a lot of people unhappy. We were counting on people being out, and they wouldn’t be out.”

Similarly, over at Pai Men Miyake, how long does it take the average customer to slurp a bowl of noodles and drink a beer? Some slurp and run, others slurp and linger.

At Hot Suppa, co-owner Alec Sabina says the weather plays a role. On fine summer Sundays, customers practically hoover up their breakfasts. “They want to come in, eat their breakfast and go to the beach,” he said. “In the summer, the tables just turn so quick. It would be very difficult for us to forecast.”

THE BOOR

To be very clear, that’s my own word. But, hey, you thoughtless diners who make reservations at five different happening spots around town, and then pick one without bothering to cancel the others, I’m talking to you. It’s your bad behavior in part that compels these restaurants to avoid the hassles of reservations. Also, the customers who don’t show up on time for their reservations. And those who make reservations for five and then turn up at the restaurant with eight guests in tow – or three.

“Honestly, it’s not something I wanted to think about as a restaurant owner – the management of reservations,” said Cong Tu Bot’s Sheahan. “You have cancellations. You have people who show up late. You have one person who shows up, but the others don’t show up for 20 minutes so that throws the restaurant off course for the whole evening.”

THE EMPTY TABLE

Imagine it’s 7:30 p.m. on a frenzied evening at your restaurant. Seventeen would-be diners are clustered at the door, while you hold two tables empty for upcoming 8 p.m. reservations. Expect the walk-in customers to glare, seethe – and worse.

“Guests that are waiting, what they dislike the most is looking in and seeing the empty table,” said Boda’s Taillon. ” ‘What is going on?! I am waiting! There is an empty table, and for some reason, I do not understand why I am not sitting there!’”

Without reservations, managers and restaurateurs say they are able to seat people more efficiently. When a table empties, presto chango, it’s cleaned, reset and reinhabited. No aggravating gaps.

SO YOU THINK RESERVATIONS ARE THE ANSWER?

Not so fast. As with most things in life, there is no perfect system. Take the Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Go ahead, just try to get a reservation there. And if being a walk-in diner staring at an empty reserved table is maddening, try being the well-organized diner who makes a reservation three weeks ahead and is told upon arrival that she’ll have to wait for her table because the party who had it before her is dawdling over dessert.

“The reservations system isn’t entirely flawless, either,” Pai Men Miyake’s Packer pointed out. “If people call in and it looks like we are booked, it’s always frustrating if a table doesn’t show up, and we could have accommodated them. Neither is a perfect system.”

Hernandez at Lolita knows firsthand the challenges of both approaches. She sets aside about half the tables at Lolita for walk-ins; the remainder may be reserved. Some diners have a show to go to at the nearby St. Lawrence Arts Center or another constraint. They need a commitment from the restaurant. But Lolita is also a neighborhood place, “and people don’t want to always plan ahead,” she said, “so if we were all reserved that wouldn’t work either.”

But if that balance hits the sweet spot for me, the customer, it greatly complicates the life of the restaurateur.

“When I told Guy (her husband and co-owner) you and I were going to talk, he put it best: ‘We designed it from the point of view of hospitality, not convenience for us,’ ” Hernandez said. “If you don’t take reservations at all, it’s a whole thing you don’t have to manage. Reservations are challenging. That (no reservations at all) would be convenient for me in one way. And if you are all reservations, you know how much food to buy, how many servers to have on. It locks down all of the details that are more left to chance in the other environment. We seem to pick the harder path no matter what.”

***

An old family friend who is a terrific salesman once told me that the real trick to selling is listening. All anybody wants, he said, is to be heard. While I was reporting on this story, several people successfully took that tact with me. “I don’t have a good counter argument to that,” Mike Wiley replied disarmingly when I asked him whether a no-reservations policy at Eventide excludes some types of diners. “It’s the best way for us to manage crowds, but you are absolutely right. You make a fine point.”

He made a finer point, or at any rate a much more interesting one, when he told me that the legendary Franklin Barbecue in Austin, where waits can stretch for five hours in the broiling Texas sun, had to set restrictions on patrons who were paying people to stand in line for them. (This stuff is too good to make up.)

Would Wiley himself be willing to wait hours for the promise of fantastic food? “Oh my lord, no.”

“The one thing I have waited for an ungodly amount of time for? My senior year of high school, my friends and I waited, Graham Cox and me, we slept in a tent all night in front of the Nugget movie theater in Hanover, New Hampshire, to get seats for “Star Wars Episode 1 –The Phantom Menace.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it was a colossal disappointment. Maybe I learned something, and that’s why I won’t wait in line now.”

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PGrodinsky

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