Reservation Apps Have Come for the Cocktail Bar

It’s getting harder to drop in for a drink. Is that a bad thing?

By Caitlin Gunther

Published on September 22, 2022

In a world where so many things are available on-demand, from television shows to late-night hookups, the cocktail bar seemed like one realm where the romance—a well-stirred mix of spontaneity and serendipity—was intact. After all, it takes a bit of luck to nab a seat at a swanky, walk-in-only watering hole. Now, the nature of the cocktail bar may be shifting, as establishments increasingly turn to Resy and OpenTable to improve customer turnover. Just as video killed the radio star, are algorithms coming for the spirit of the cocktail bar? 

While some may see the idea of planning a fancy drinks outing in advance as the demise of spontaneity, others aren’t so sure. Bar expert and Drink What You Want cocktail guidebook author John deBary thinks that, while using reservation apps may be “less sexy,” they are a positive force overall. deBary, who previously tended bar at famed New York City speakeasy Please Don’t Tell (better known as PDT), remembers the culture of exclusivity that once surrounded cocktail bars. Even at establishments where reservations were already the standard, they were almost impossible to come by; PDT, for example, accommodated no more than 24 guests, which “really limited how many people we could bring in,” said deBary. Moreover, across the cocktail bar scene in general, there was a lot of “insider-y texting,” he recalled, resulting in systems that favored people in the business or customers who were personal friends of the bartender or owner. Apps, on the other hand, have a democratizing effect. “It strikes me as more accessible and hospitable because it's very transparent,” he said. Anyone can search for available bar seats and make a reservation—the only barrier to entry is a valid email address or phone number. 

The apps aren’t necessarily inimical to spontaneity either. Say your friend is running late for dinner and you’re deciding whether to nudge the reservation back an hour. “With that time, you can check Resy, find an opening at a nearby bar, and grab it,” said deBary. Rather than fuming at your perpetually tardy friend, you can kill an hour with a cocktail and maybe even add a new heart to your pinned list on Google Maps.  

Elva Ramirez, drinks writer and author of Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking, is likewise supportive of cocktail bar reservations, especially in more intimate bars, where space is tight and service is seated-only (no standing room). With a little planning ahead, customers can reserve a table at an allotted hour—and spend less time waiting outside on the sidewalk.

For traditionalists who refuse to download the reservation apps, there are workarounds for scoring a spot—and maintaining all the impulsivity of “Hey, wanna grab a drink?” As Ramirez recommended, “Be patient. Be unfailingly polite.” Even at bars where Ramirez considers herself a regular, “I won't always have a seat when I walk in—and I don't expect to.” If you’re pleasant and don’t apply undue pressure on the establishment, sometimes the host may even reciprocate the gesture with faster accommodation. “As in all things in life, being nice opens many doors,” she added.

Esther Tseng, a Los Angeles-based writer and Academy Chair for the World's 50 Best Bars, agrees that you can still spontaneously score a table at a popular cocktail bar. Visiting during off-peak hours makes a big difference, “like Mondays through Wednesdays, before 6:30 p.m., or before the bar or restaurant is going to close out,” she recommended. In other words, if you’re thirsty, there will always be a way. 

Similar to restaurants that resist delivery, certain bars will continue to hold out against reservation apps. Those establishments won’t pose a threat to spontaneity, but the cost may be an air of exclusivity, difficulty nabbing a table, or simply a very long wait. Chances are, as time goes on, more and more bars will offer themselves up as clickable timeslots—but that doesn’t mean the experience will change once you’re in the door. 

Having gone to school in New York in the early aughts, I remember the heyday of speakeasy-style cocktail joints, like the legendary Milk & Honey. I saved up my work-study paychecks to foot the bill for a gently smoky, honey-and-ginger-tinged Penicillin cocktail. Walking through the door (or, rather, finding the unmarked entrance on a gritty street downtown—so New York) was the ticket to a front-row seat to watch someone measure and mix a bespoke, meticulously crafted beverage, to hear the rattle of the ice in the shaker, to taste something I wouldn’t dream of making myself. Had we simply booked a table online, would it have diminished the magic? I doubt it.

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