Minibar's six seats are some of the hardest to secure in Washington. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Every morning at 10, Café Atlántico in DC’s Penn Quarter stages a race for the most coveted restaurant seats in town: six barstools at Minibar, José Andrés’s restaurant within a restaurant. Minibar has been around since 2003, but its seats are booked solid. Anyone who has tried to score reservations knows the drill: Call the restaurant at 10 one month prior to the day you hope to dine at one of two evening seatings. One Minibar hopeful had a team of five office interns on the case every morning, and it still took weeks to get past a busy signal.
Minibar is an extreme example, but getting a table at any popular spot is harder than ever. Here are ways to do it:
Don’t stop with online reservations. Gone are the days when you could be guaranteed weekend seats by going to OpenTable.com during the week. While the service is convenient, many restaurants offer only a percentage of seats that way. On an average night at Rasika, just under half the seats are booked through OpenTable. The Web site gets a third of the tables at Masa 14, with the rest reserved for walk-ins and phone reservations.
Ask about a waiting list. Minibar has a waiting list for each seating. DC restaurants such as Cork and Hank’s Oyster Bar offer the option of calling ahead on your desired night to put your name on the list.
Eat early or late—or in the beginning of the week. A bonus: Restaurants often offer wine deals on Sunday (half-price bottles on Vinoteca’s flamenco night), Monday (half-price bottles at Chef Geoff’s and Cafe Deluxe), and Tuesday ($18 bottles at Dino).
Dine at the bar. Many guests prefer stools for face time with bartenders such as Gina Chersevani at PS 7’s or Adam Bernbach at Proof. Bar dining is best suited to couples or singles. At Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, solo diners are deemed VIPs and might get an extra amuse-bouche or a visit from the chef. CityZen’s lounge has terrific bar seats—diners can try three courses for $50 from a lounge menu.
Go again and again. Become a regular at a couple of your favorite restaurants. Though diners are treated the same in theory, a restaurant isn’t a democracy. Whether it’s a prime table, first dibs on the waiting list, or the staff taking extra care, it pays to earn VIP status.
As for Minibar regulars? “We don’t give away seats if someone important comes in,” says reservationist Bonji Beard. But if there’s a sudden vacancy, Beard calls one of a couple of regulars and offers it, provided that person’s party can arrive within 15 minutes.
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.