10 Tips for Landing a Reservation at DC’s Hottest Restaurants

No bribes, please

Photograph by Lauren Pusateri Studio.

Getting a table at certain hot restaurants can feel like an impossible task. But scrolling through Resy is often deceiving: Many places reserve at least some tables or bar seats for walk-ins, and there’s usually a little wiggle room to make accommodations. We asked gatekeepers of some of DC’s most popular restaurants for tips on how to snag a sought-after booking.

Research when reservations go live.

The most popular places can fill up in minutes, particularly for prime times. If you want a specific date and hour, find out the exact time new reservations go live and set an alarm.

Get an alert for cancellations.

Most reservation platforms now let you set email and text alerts for tables that open up in your desired time frame. Dante Datta, owner of Daru in the H Street corridor, says the cancellation rate for his popular Indian restaurant hovers near 50 percent from the time reservations go live a month in advance, meaning there are lots of opportunities via Resy to pick up a table that someone else dropped. (Worth noting: The cancellation rate is about 5 percent in the 24 hours leading up to the reservation.)

New restaurants often limit online bookings in the opening phase.

When Union Market’s El Presidente debuted this fall, the red-hot Mexican restaurant from Stephen Starr initially put only half its capacity on Resy. But Starr VP Jenna Velella says the number will bump up to around 85 percent, as at sister spot Le Diplomate, in the coming months. That translates to more space for walk-ins in the opening phase.

Show up when the restaurant opens.

Maydan, the hot spot off 14th Street, still has people who line up right at 5, when the restaurant opens, for its walk-in-only bar and high-top seats. “More or less any day of the week, if you’re there right at 5, you can get a bar seat,” says owner Rose Previte. “Once we’re past 5:30, that is much harder to do.”

Check for last-minute patio seats.

Daru doesn’t open up reservations for its patio until it’s clear the weather will be nice—usually the day before or by noon the day of. That means it’s easier to land a prime-time last-minute reservation alfresco. On weekends, four out of seven outdoor tables will end up on Resy, but on slower weeknights, all of those can be booked online.

Call or email. Really.

“Sometimes there is a little bit more flexibility with the human touch,” says Melissa Provinsal, operational manager at the Red Hen, the Italian dining room in Bloomingdale. “People can move things around and squeeze you in where there’s this open hole that Resy isn’t able to see.” In particular, she advises calling within a day of your desired reservation, because the 24-hour mark is when the restaurant sends automatic confirmations and tends to see the most cancellations. At Maydan, don’t call—email. “Honestly, the emails are more effective than the [Resy] notify list,” Previte says. “In the emails, you’re getting real people who are giving you their story about their special occasion, so of course we interact a little bit differently.”

For a big group, plan in advance.

Maydan books reservations no more than 21 days in advance for groups of up to six. But if you have a larger gathering, you need to email the restaurant, and it will allow you to reserve further out with more choice of dates. “Your bigger group has an advantage to getting a reservation in a way, as long as it’s far enough ahead,” Previte says.

Watch the restaurant’s Instagram page.

Some places will post last-minute openings on social media. The Red Hen even has an Instagram handle (@redhenbarseats) with live updates when spots are available at the bar. Still, Instagram is generally not a great place to bring your reservation inquiries. The people managing these accounts, sometimes outside contractors, aren’t usually managing the bookings.

The days of greasing palms are long gone. In Maydan’s early days, Rose Previte recalls someone dropping of $200, a Tiffany paperweight, and a Montblanc pen. “I gave everything away. They got nothing in return.”

No bribes.

The days of greasing palms are long gone. Most restaurants have strict policies against bribes, and trying to cheat the system can actually work against you. That doesn’t mean some people don’t try. In Maydan’s early days, Previte recalls someone from an embassy dropping off $200 in cash, a Tiffany paperweight, and a Montblanc pen. “I called and was like, ‘We can’t accept this,’ ” Previte says. “I gave everything away. We donated that money. They got nothing in return.”

Mention that special occasion, but don’t be too pushy.

No, the host doesn’t know who you are. Staff are more likely to accommodate a gracious request than a demanding one. “Don’t litigate your reason with our kind host about why you should have a table—go in nicely and just be friendly,” Previte says. “We really want to accommodate special occasions. I just tell guests, ‘You’re not bothering us. Please write that down in an email and send it to us and we’ll do our absolute best.’ ”

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.