Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Post | reservations at The French Laundry

Before Stefie and I finish up our main entry for The French Laundry, we figured it'd be worthwhile to first write a short post detailing the reservation process. We spent a great deal of time researching everything online in order to figure out the best way to score a table -- so we hope our efforts will be informative, as there is a lot of outdated/incorrect information floating around out there.

Getting a reservation at The French Laundry is incredibly difficult. There are only sixteen tables in the entire restaurant (some of them for two people, others for four or more), and a given meal takes anywhere from three to four hours. Couple that with world-class fame, and you've got a real challenge on your hands. You typically need to make your reservation two months in advance either by phone or through OpenTable. For instance, if you wanted to eat on June 6, you'd need to make the reservation on April 6. You can try to snatch tables earlier than two months in advance with a decent concierge service (such as the kind that come with a Black American Express card if you just so happen to sweat diamonds for a living). Another option is to go with a group of 8-10 people and book a private reservation up to a year in advance in order to circumvent the mayhem entirely. The phone lines open at 10 AM Pacific Time, and OpenTable reservations are released manually at either midnight or from 8:30-10:00 AM at the restaurant's discretion. An agent from The French Laundry explained to me that OpenTable reservations are released in the morning hours more often than they are at midnight. Cancelling can be done at any time, but if it's done within 72 hours of the reservation, there is a opportunity-cost penalty of $100 per person that doesn't show up. The same logic applies if you show up as a party of two having reserved a table for four (you'll get charged an extra $200).

Stefie and I were planning our entire trip to San Francisco around our potential reservation. On March 19th, we whipped out our phones at 1:00 PM Eastern Time (three hours ahead of the west coast) and began dialing with fingers of fury. Even when I ran my phone's speed-dialer at a rate of one call every 6 seconds, I was unable to penetrate through the inhumanly-thick wall of busy signals for over half an hour (yes, over 300 calls!). By the time I got through, all of the tables were inevitably taken. We were offered a chance to hop on the waitlist, but even then, the list doesn't move very quickly since people don't cancel often.

On March 20th, the same thing happened again -- busy signals for half an hour straight. The situation looked bleak. What made matters even worse is the fact that securing tables for two is even harder than securing tables for four. The restaurant makes more profit from serving larger parties, and so there are simply fewer tables for two available, making an already-precious commodity that much more elusive.

Needless to say, the phone approach doesn't really cut it. OpenTable is a bit more forgiving. However, you need to be fast. Not only is it essential to spot the table the moment it pops up on the screen, but you also need to click it, enter in your information (name, address, credit card information, etc), and confirm the reservation in order to actually seal the deal. Lunch is served from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only, and dinner is served every day from 5:30 PM to 9:15 PM. OpenTable performs a two-hour sweep in each direction centered on the time you search for, so you should either enter 12:00 PM for lunch availabilities, or 7:30 PM if you'd prefer dinner instead (the lunch and dinner menus are the same). Tables for two are most easily achieved during lunch hours. Keep in mind, though, that it's pure chance when it comes down to which tables are actually available on OpenTable. It's entirely possible that no tables get released at all because they've already been booked for whatever reason, and so getting a reservation online still requires luck -- just not nearly as much luck as the phone route because you have a bit more control over the process.

Luckily for us, we managed to claim a reservation for lunch at 11:15 AM on May 21!

It also happened to be the only lunch table released online that day (nothing else had been released at either midnight or from 8:30 onward). This reservation was acquired just after 10:00 AM Pacific Time on March 21, 2011.

Findings: Definitely do your research before you plan your meal at The French Laundry, especially if you're going to leverage the OpenTable approach. Be flexible, above all -- we found that to be the most important part of the process. We were lucky that we planned our trip around a Friday and a weekend, giving us multiple opportunities to nab any/all possible lunch reservations along with potential daily dinner reservations. Parties of four seem to be "easier" to obtain, so try to shoot for that if possible. Also, patience is key. You will most likely experience frustration when you start the reservation process. Just take it one day at a time, get friends to help you out, and take whatever reservation you can get (figure out the details later). Good luck!

Price point: free to sign-up for an OpenTable account, and varying costs for concierge services or making domestic calls to Yountville, California.

--March 21, 2011

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
call (707) 944-2380 or visit the French Laundry OpenTable page for reservations
also review the restaurant's reservation policy on its official website


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