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Wednesday, August 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

Risks and rewards of booking your table online

Seattle Times restaurant critic

On the Web


Online restaurant reservation services include:

OpenTable.com Free to diners, with up-to-the-minute reservations available around the clock, recorded in the restaurant's own computerized reservation book and confirmed in seconds via e-mail. Fifty-six Seattle-area restaurants listed.

www.SavvyDiner.com Free to diners, geared toward travelers, requires 24-hour notice to confirm reservations (though confirmation — via e-mail, phone or fax — may arrive much faster). Acts as middleman. Fifty-six Seattle-area restaurants listed.

www.DinnerBroker.com Free to diners, geared toward "price-sensitive consumers" (offers off-peak dining discounts). Confirmed immediately via e-mail; changes/cancellations may be made by phone to a customer support hot line or via their Web site (registered users only). Seventeen Seattle-area restaurants listed.

www.RestaurantRow.com Fee-based service (subscription buys unlimited use or $4.95-per-use reservation fee). Acts as middleman, contacting restaurant before confirming your reservation. Phone-book-like database covers wide territory.

www.iSeatz.com Membership required for use. Four Seattle-area restaurants listed.

When Rosalie D'Amico walks into Café Juanita, they've got her number. Before she takes her seat, her server knows she doesn't want ice in her water, prefers olive oil with her bread and has an aversion to white truffle oil.

Turns out they've got my number, too. They know my birth date, when I dined there last (New Year's Eve), the number in my party (two), where I was seated (table three) and who waited on me (Glenda).

Say hello to Big Brother: Restaurant Edition, otherwise known as OpenTable.com, coming soon to a restaurant near you.

OpenTable hooks Internet users directly to a restaurant's electronic "reservation book." Connect to their Web site — OpenTable.com — and you can search for available tables in a given city, for a particular time, in a specific neighborhood, by cuisine type and by price range — a process that takes seconds. With a few keystrokes, you enter a reservation and — boom! — it's recorded in the same computerized book used by restaurant personnel and confirmed in seconds via the e-mail address you've provided.

Here's the thing, though: OpenTable lets restaurants track you, whether you use the system or not. Its software allows restaurateurs to keep a patron profile or "history," regardless of whether you booked reservations via the OpenTable Web site, the restaurant's own Web site, in person or by phone. D'Amico has never made a reservation using OpenTable, but it carefully tracks her visits to Café Juanita: 143 so far.

"I'm a huge fan of OpenTable," says chef Holly Smith, who installed the system when she bought Café Juanita in 2000. "It's great because it gives me a chance to provide a certain, higher level of service. When we take a phone reservation, we ask, 'Is it a special occasion?' You type that in there, it stays forever. It's a beautiful thing."

Customers' reaction to that personal level of service is also a beautiful thing, Smith says. "People wonder, 'How did you know it was my birthday?' and when they say, 'I really loved my server last time I was here,' I can tell them, 'Oh, you had Paul last time.' "

Rich Malia, owner of Ponti Seafood Grill, is sold on the history function, too. "Guys like (late restaurateurs) Victor Rosellini and Peter Canlis could always remember their customers' names and what company they worked for. Some people have a gift that way. Me? I can't remember. With OpenTable, you can make a permanent note so the hostess knows it's the president of the garden society, and you can send them out something, or do something extra."

The ability to get personal works both ways, allowing customers with special requests to get what they want with a minimal amount of fuss. Say you'd like a bottle of champagne waiting on your table at arrival, or have a peanut allergy: Duly noted, by you (via the Internet) or by the person taking phone reservations.

Virginia Berglund has been booking dinners electronically at Café Juanita for five years. "I can make the reservations while I'm working, which is easier than making a phone call," she says. "One of the reasons we've stayed with Café Juanita is that they do so well at accommodating my husband's gluten-intolerant diet." And one of the reasons the kitchen goes to the trouble of making Mr. Berglund's favorite coconut gelato — a preference listed in their profile — is that the couple have dined at Café Juanita 108 times with only one cancellation and nary a no-show.

Worth the cost?

While simple for customers to navigate and use, the OpenTable system is far from perfect, listing only about 60 Seattle-area restaurants, a number that is growing. What's more, those listed are far from a representative sampling of area restaurants; most are high-enders.

And there are inevitable glitches. Last week, customers were able to make confirmed reservations at Vivanda Ristorante in Pike Place Market, even though it's been closed since July (a snafu that, according to OpenTable, was "an extremely rare occurrence" and short-lived, the result of a site update). Diners attempting to reserve online at Ray's Boathouse last Wednesday were met with a prompt saying Ray's was experiencing a temporary problem with its Internet connection. The problem was a loose cable connection in-house — not OpenTable's fault, say the folks at Ray's.

Ray's General Manager Mo Shaw notes that overall the OpenTable product is "absolutely outstanding," but there is one thing about it that drives her nuts: The person who greets guests at the reception desk spends too much face time with the computer and not enough with the patrons. This is why she insists on having a second host available. "Somebody's got to be doing the warm and fuzzy — not the technical part," she says.

But extra help costs money — as does OpenTable. The service is free to diners, but the restaurant pays a buck a seat for each reservation made through the OpenTable.com site. Connect via the restaurant's site, and the cost is 25 cents. There's also a monthly fee for each terminal, the software and, in some cases, the Internet connection.

While OpenTable is not the only option for online reservation services (see box), it is the most widely used locally, and the only one that allows diners direct access to a restaurant's reservation book. Other services more commonly act as "middlemen," contacting the restaurant before getting back to you to confirm.

Chris Keff, chef/owner of Flying Fish, is skeptical. "The question with these online services is, can they provide you with business you wouldn't have otherwise? And that's a hard question to answer." Keff used OpenTable years ago before nixing it, due, in large part, to its cost. "If I look at the $400 to $500 a month spent on it, I think, 'Well, I can pay for my ad in the theater programs and boost my late-night dining instead.' "

Personally, I'm slow to embrace new technologies. The way I see it, why would a diner want to go through a "third party" rather than call the restaurant directly and speak to a human being?

Why, indeed.

Have you ever tried to make a reservation only to have the phone ring off the hook because the restaurant is closed or staffers are too busy to answer the phone? Ever been put on hold for what seems like eons? Happens to me all the time.

So I thought I'd give OpenTable a try. I found it an effortless way to gather information about a city's better restaurants (42 U.S. states are represented), and though I didn't need to be a member to use the service, membership offers a variety of perks, including a frequent-diner program. I was impressed by the informative site whose detailed information includes restaurant bios, photos, hours, parking info, dress code and maps — and by the fact that I could make a reservations 24/7.

For business or holiday travel, it's like having your own personal concierge. Just for kicks, I hit the New York entry last week to see about scoring a table for two at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27. Within seconds I learned that I could be accommodated at 264 restaurants in Manhattan alone, including Alain Ducasse, Aix and Artisanal — and that was just a fraction of the "A"-list. Impressive.

Locally, more restaurants are adopting the system. Cascadia just did. Zöe and The Herbfarm will soon be hooked up. Even Keff is reconsidering: She's giving OpenTable a second chance at Flying Fish with a three-month trial beginning in October.

Meanwhile, we'll have to wait and see whether more restaurants — hopefully a wider variety — adopt the system. If so, it could have a significant impact on our dining experiences, whether we go online and use it or not.

"Soon," speculates Smith, "the OpenTable terminal is going to scream at the waiter when they pass, yelling 'It's table 19's birthday!' And aren't you more likely to go back to a restaurant if they make you feel special? If they were really emotionally invested in your evening? For me, that's well worth a dollar. Or even a few dollars."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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