Scoring A Restaurant Table Online
March 12, 2009
By JANE HODGES
Going online to make a restaurant reservation -- or better yet, get a discount -- is no longer a novelty. For about a decade, many services have offered diners the ability to reserve seats, earn dining discounts, or both, all with the click of a mouse.
But given the plummeting economy and the technological advances of the past few years, we decided to see what sorts of seats and deals we could locate in our home base of Seattle -- and how easy it was to do so.
We tried OpenTable.com, SavvyDiner.com, Restaurant.com and DinnerBroker.com, all of which operate in most major U.S. cities. All of them offer free online dining reservations.
As an added enticement, they also offer upfront discounts on dining (Restaurant.com , DinnerBroker) or let diners who register accrue points for each reservation and apply them toward restaurant gift certificates (OpenTable, DinnerBroker and, through its reservation partners, SavvyDiner). The biggest discounts, or the greatest number of points, were generally available for early-bird diners (before 6:30 p.m.) or, in some cases, for late-night dining (8:30 p.m. or after).
Searching by Date
The services' search functions varied. All of them let us search by restaurant name or location. But we preferred the ones (OpenTable, DinnerBroker) that also let us search restaurants based on the date and time we wanted to dine. OpenTable recently launched a reservation application for the iPhone, and DinnerBroker, which is relaunching in about two months, will introduce an iPhone application, says CEO Ben Dehan.
Among the sites we visited, we noticed a divide between services that catered to foodies looking to make reservations (OpenTable, SavvyDiner) and those that offered discounts to diners motivated more by budget (Restaurant.com). One service (DinnerBroker) straddles the line, but its relaunch will focus more on discounting.
Restaurant.com doesn't focus on reservations, though it does offer them. Instead, it promotes dining deals. The service sells instant discounted gift certificates, which diners can print and present when they pay their bill. The site listed everything from 88 Keys Dueling Piano Sports Bar to mom-and-pop restaurants at strip malls, as well as the occasional hotel or downtown restaurant.
We paid $3 for a $10 gift certificate to Tacos Guaymas, an informal sit-down Mexican restaurant. We tried to make a reservation before the restaurant's opening time (11 a.m.) on a Sunday, and got an on-screen message telling us to try making a reservation during business hours.
We also had trouble making a reservation when we logged on at 7 p.m. seeking a 7:30 p.m. table. Spokesman Jeff Carlin says that may have been a glitch. When Restaurant.com users request a reservation, the site then calls the restaurant, which then calls diners to confirm, he says. Rather than bother with this Byzantine process, we went to dinner without a reservation and had no trouble securing seats.
As for the gift-certificate process, our waitress at Tacos Guaymas was familiar with Restaurant.com, but apparently we'd printed our certificate in such a way that validation information was obscured.
Our waitress called the company twice and couldn't get through, but extended us our $10 discount anyway, saying she'd follow up with the company later on her own. While this may have been our error, we found these hassles not worth it for saving $7 ($10 gift certificate, minus the $3 to purchase it) on a $40 tab for two.
DinnerBroker offered a more straightforward discount procedure: When you make a reservation at a restaurant that offers a discount you don't need to bring in any paperwork. Instead, the restaurant will automatically deduct the appropriate discount from your bill. We successfully booked a weekday lunch at Shallots Asian Bistro using the site, though the restaurant was offering discounts only at dinner that week.
DinnerBroker listed dozens of restaurants -- everything from highly ranked French restaurant Le Gourmand to Outback Steakhouse -- but offered reservations at only nine of them and discounted reservations at only four. The site uses a points system to dole out rewards, offering 100 points per reservation, which are redeemable in the form of gift certificates (100 points is worth $1).
OpenTable offered the most choices among upscale restaurants -- reliable, independent places we'd go to for a business meal, before a show or to impress out-of-towners. Making reservations using the site (and SavvyDiner, which sends all reservation requests via partners such as OpenTable) was easy, and we successfully reserved a weeknight table for two twice at Steelhead Diner, a midpriced downtown restaurant -- in one case less than 30 minutes before we dined. Reservations for larger groups were available on weekend nights a few days in advance, as were 1,000-point reservations during off hours.
OpenTable doesn't offer its own discounts. The site is essentially a platform for restaurants and food-content sites such as Zagat.com and CitySearch.com, enabling them to offer instantly verifiable reservations online. Users need not register to make a reservation, but if they'd like to earn points they need to do so. (A typical reservation provides 100 points, worth $1, redeemable at $20, $50 and $100 thresholds. Occasionally a restaurant will offer 1,000 points for a reservation, but usually for dining very early or late.)
Overall, we found each of the services to be useful in their own way. For our part, we're less concerned about discounts and more interested in getting into popular restaurants, so OpenTable and SavvyDiner appealed to us the most. But budget-conscious diners might prefer DinnerBroker or, if they can plan ahead and have time to get confirmation phone calls, (Restaurant.com -- though it might mean eating at a sports bar.
OpenTable.com, www.opentable.com Free instant online reservations at over 10,000 restaurants in major U.S. cities, Canada, Mexico and parts of Europe, with gift-certificate rewards based on number of reservations made. Points accrued by making online reservations translate into gift certificates at member restaurants. Reservations are instant, pulled from a restaurant's seating inventory and are guaranteed. OpenTable had the largest network of participating restaurants in our market; service is now available via iPhone.
SavvyDiner.com, www.savvydiner.com Links to restaurants in popular U.S. cities and lets you make online reservations. Relinquished its own reservation system in 2008 and now uses OpenTable and other partners to link diners to restaurants. Number of restaurants is not very extensive, but does represent a diverse mix in terms of price and variety.
Restaurant.com, www.restaurant.com Provides discount gift certificates at restaurants for consumers to use for themselves or to give as gifts. Reservations are available at some, but not all, participating restaurants. Discounted pricing on meals using gift certificates that diners present with the bill. Many restaurants place restrictions on gift-certificate usage (automatic tip, no weekends, minimum tabs). Service requires bringing paper gift certificate to restaurant. No instant reservations.
DinnerBroker.com, www.dinnerbroker.com Provides discounts and reservations at a network of participating restaurants around the U.S. Reservation and discount information is sent to restaurants electronically, so no coupons or certificates are needed. Points accrued when making reservations can be used to buy gift certificates. Only nine "featured restaurants" offer reservations in Seattle. Reservations aren't guaranteed if diners are more than 15 minutes late.
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