Frank Bruni, who was the food critic at the NY Times for five years, was recently diagnosed with gout. Since his diagnosis, he's had to cut back on much of his previous food and drink favorites.
You never really quite appreciate just what a cornucopia of food alternatives exists -- just how many culinary directions you can set off in -- until a few are cut off and you're forced to re-route yourself. That's a lesson that people with celiac disease and with diabetes have learned. It's what vegetarians have long asserted. And it's what gout is teaching me. In diet books, the word "substitution" comes across as some pathetic euphemism for "sacrifice" and "compromise," a positive-spin noun born of negative circumstances. But substitution is indeed a plausible course, and not necessarily a punitive one. At breakfast, oatmeal thickened with a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter can provide the same wicked indulgence that pork sausage does. At dinnertime, chicken prepared with care and ingenuity can go a long way toward replacing lamb, and the right kind of omelet can be wholly satisfying.
After five years, NY Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni is moving on to other assignments.
In his spare time, between aerobic eating and the requisite gym time to burn it all off, he has managed to produce a memoir of his lifelong, complicated relationship with food. Recognizing that the book is certain to seriously compromise his ability to be a spy in the land of food, Frank picked this as a natural time to move on. He will be turning in his restaurant-critic credentials when his memoir, "Born Round: the Secret History of a Full-Time Eater," is published in late August.
Sad to see him go...I liked Bruni as a reviewer. But how long can the Times continue to expect their critics to remain anonymous? Savvy restaurateurs often knew when Bruni was in the house and it remains unclear whether a known reviewer is a biased reviewer.
NY Times food critic Frank Bruni notes that in this down economy, it's easier to get reservations and deals at even the hottest restaurants as they struggle to remain profitable. And the service is less haughty.
"The attitude that a number of places used to have, they don't have that anymore," Ms. Rappoport said, her tone of voice communicating equal measures bewilderment and relief. "That attitude of 'we're doing you a favor,' that frosty condescending attitude -- I don't find that anymore. And I've experienced that change over and over again." Servers, she said, make double- and triple-sure that her table has everything it needs. Managers circle back to the table more often than ever to ask, with new urgency, if everything's O.K.
For opportunistic diners, there are at least three big advantages to this trend.
1. Great food at relatively reasonable prices.
2. Dining opportunities at great but previously unavailable restaurants at good times.
3. The chance to become a highly valued regular at your favorite restaurant. If they're doing things right and you support them when times are tough (visit often, tip well, etc.), they'll gratefully reward you in better times with reservations at prime times, VIP treatment, and dishes "courtesy of the chef".
The NY Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, has been answering reader questions all week...it's worth a read if you care at all about food and dining out.
New York Times food critic Frank Bruni tries out the Urbanspoon restaurant-seeking application on the iPhone (shake the phone to find restaurant options near you) and ends up writing a pretty convincing argument for individual expertise over collective wisdom.
I locked in a price of two dollar signs and shook again. Up came the Morgan Dining Room, and off went an alarm in my head. Isn't the Morgan Dining Room a lunch place that's closed most nights? I called to make sure, and, sure enough, got a recording.
Urbanspoon is more of a beginning than an end, unable to factor in, for example, whether the restaurant it's recommending books up a month in advance (Babbo, for example) or often has long waits (Momofuku Ssam Bar). That's a troublesome shortcoming in New York, where competition for seats in the most popular places is fierce.
Frank Bruni, the food critic for the NY Times, wrote yesterday about the difficulty of getting a reservation at David Chang's new Momofuku Ko restaurant. Ko's online reservation system is the *only* way of procuring a seat at the tiny Manhattan restaurant...no walk-ins, no friends of the chef or celebs getting preferential treatment. It works more or less like Ticketmaster's online ticketing: you select the number of guests, it shows you the available reservation times (if any), you click on a time, and if that time is still available when you click it, only then does the system hold your choice while you fill in some information.
It's a simple system; seats for dinner are released on the site a week in advance at 10am each day and the people that click on their preferred times first get the reservations. Ko takes only 32 reservations each night and the restaurant is one of the hottest in town, which means that all the reservations are gone each day in seconds...sometimes in 2 or 3 seconds. Just like Radiohead tickets on Ticketmaster.
Except that diners are not used to this sort of thing. One of Bruni's readers got irritated that he got through to the pick-a-time screen but then when he clicked on his preferred time was told that the reservation was already gone. Someone had beaten him to the punch. So he emailed the restaurant for an explanation. The exchange between the restaurant and the snubbed patron should be familiar with anyone who has done web development for clients or any kind of tech support.
In a nutshell, the would-be patron said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "your system is unfair and broken," and the folks at Ko replied, "sorry, that's how the internet works". The comments on the post are both fascinating and disappointing, with many people attempting to debunk Ko's seemingly lame excuse of, well, that's how the internet works. Except that's pretty much the right answer...although it's clearer to say that that's how a web server communicates with a web browser (and even that is a bit imprecise). When the pick-a-time page is downloaded by a particular browser, it's based on the information the web server had when it sent the page out. The page sits unchanged on your computer -- it doesn't know anything about how many reservations the web server has left to dole out -- until the person clicks on a time. An anonymous commenter in Bruni's thread nails the choice that a web developer has to face in this instance:
This is a multi-user concurrency problem that all sites with limited inventory and a high demand (users all clicking the button all at the same time) have to deal with. It's not an easy problem to solve.
The easier method (which the Ko site has chosen) is to not "lock" a reservation slot until the very end. You submit your party size and the system looks for available slots that it knows about. It shows you the calendar page, with the available slots it knows about (if any). This doesn't update in real time because they haven't implemented it to know about the current state of inventory. This can be done, but it's more complicated.
The more complicated method is to lock a reservation slot upon beginning of the checkout process, with a time out occurring if the user takes too long to finish, or some other error occurs (in other systems this can be a blacklisted credit card number). If this happens, the system throws the reservation slot back into the pool. However, you need to give people a mechanism to keep trying for ones that get thrown back into the pool (like a "Try Again" button).
Building something like this not impossible (see Ticketmaster) but requires a much more real-time system that is aware of who has what, and what stage of the checkout process they're in - in addition to total available inventory. Building a robust system like this is not cheap.
Even then, you might get shut out. You submit your party size, everything is already gone, and you never get to the calendar page. It just moves up the "sold out" disappointment to earlier in the process.
A subsequent commenter suggests using "Web 2.0" technologies (I think he's talking specifically about Ajax) but as Anonymous suggests, that would increase the complexity of the system on the server side (unnecessarily in my mind) while moving up the "'sold out' disappointment to earlier in the process". Plus, that sort of system could put you "on hold" for several minutes while the reservations are taken by the folks in front of you until you're told, "too bad, all gone". I'm not sure that's preferable to being told sooner and may result in much more irritation on the part of potential diners.
In my opinion (as a web developer and as someone who has used Ko's reservation system from start to finish), Ko's system does it right. You're locked into a reservation by the system only when you've chosen exactly what you want. It favors the web user who's prepared & lucky and is simple for Ko to implement and maintain. That the logic used to produce this simple system takes three paragraphs to explain to an end user is irrelevent. After all, a restaurant dinner is easy to eat but explaining how it came to be that way fills entire books.
This might seem too inside baseball for most readers -- the number of people interested in new NYC restaurants *and* web development is likely quite small, even among kottke.org's readership -- but there's an interesting conflict going on here between technology and customer service. What kind of a problem is this...technological or social? Bruni's correspondent blamed the technology and much of the focus of the discussion has been on the process of procuring a reservation. But the main limiting factor is the enormous demand for seats; tens of thousands of people a week vying for a few hundred seats per week. The technology is largely irrelevent; whatever Ko does, however well the reservation system works or doesn't work, nearly all of the people interacting with the restaurant are going to be disappointed that they didn't get in.
One of the first reviews Ruth Reichl wrote as the New York Times food critic was of Le Cirque, a fancy French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. In the now-famous piece, immortalied in her memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl compares the service she receives at the restaurant as a welcomed reviewer with that as an average Jane. From the review:
Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one. An avalanche of sweets descended upon the table, and I was fascinated to note that the raspberries on the new desserts were three times the size of those on the old ones.
Thirteen years later, current food critic Frank Bruni reviews the newest incarnation of Le Cirque in today's Times and echoing Reichl's technique, finds that little has changed:
I also experienced Le Cirque's famously split personality, half dismissive and half pampering, depending on who you are. On my first visit, when a companion and I arrived before the two other members of our party, a host let us know we should wait in the bar area not by asking or telling us to go there but by gesturing silently in that direction with his head. Most of the seats were occupied, so we stood. Over the next 10 minutes, no one asked us if we wanted a drink or anything else.
After we were taken to our table, servers seemed to figure out who I was and offered to move us to prime real estate with better sightlines. (We declined.)
So on a subsequent visit I sent three friends in ahead of me. One sat at the bar for 15 minutes without getting a server's attention, and a bartender quarreled with the two others when they asked that the charges for their Champagne be transferred to the table. At a place as self-consciously posh as Le Cirque, such a request should be granted instantly.
But I was treated like royalty when I showed up, and on another night, when I dined with a filmmaker whom the staff also knew, soft-shell crabs, which weren't on the menu, appeared almost as soon as she mentioned an appetite for them. They were fantastic: crunchy, meaty, sweet.
I can't imagine wanting to go someplace like that when there's so many other places with food as good or better and where the service is friendly, helpful, and accommodating for everybody. I guess that's the side of New York I don't like.
The Pour is a wine blog by the NY Times wine guy, Eric Asimov. Asimov joins Frank Bruni on the food and bev blogging front for the Times. The Pour includes a list of links to other wine blogs and resources as well. Nicely done.
Earlier today I posted a link to Frank Bruni's new food blog over at the NY Times. At the same time, I added a comment to this post about how restaurant reservations work here in NYC. I went back to see if there was any further conversation and my comment had been deleted (or had otherwise disappeared). Not such a good start. I've resubmitted the comment...we'll see how long it lasts.