How to Get a Seat at a Crowded Restaurant Without a Reservation

And Possibly Save 70% while You’re at It

When you want to eat at a busy restaurant, making a reservation is great. But sometimes you forget to do so. Or you decide to eat out on the spur of the moment. Or you want to eat somewhere that doesn’t take reservations. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could waltz in to a crowded restaurant with no reservation and still get a seat right away?

There’s a trick my wife and I have used countless times, without fail, to do just that. It works best for parties of two. Here’s how to execute the trick in 5 steps:

5 Steps to Get a Seat at a Crowded Restaurant Without a Reservation

1. Identify Seat-Yourself Seating

Approach the host or hostess. Go ahead and put your name down for a table. Take a buzzer. It can’t hurt.

But, importantly, ask where in the restaurant you can seat yourself. You can almost always seat yourself at the bar. Sometimes tables near the bar or elsewhere are also permitted.

2. Look for Two Open Seats Together

Head over to the bar or other seat-yourself area and look for open seats. You might get lucky and find two next to each other. But you probably won’t. At least, not on a very busy night. However, the trick that has never failed me is the following.

3. Find and Consolidate Single Open Seats

What you can almost always find are two single open seats (often with coats or purses on them), separated by two or three occupied seats.

For instance, if, in the following depiction, “X’s” are seats with folks in them and “O’s” are open seats, you might find a row of chairs at the bar that look like this:


In that case, just kindly ask one of the groups of three if they would slide down one seat in either direction so that you and your dining companion can sit next to each other. In my experience, they will always move for you.

Pro tip: if members of one of the groups of three are eating, whereas the other three people are only drinking, ask the three that are only drinking to slide over. It is easier for folks to accommodate your request if they aren’t eating.

4. Order Dinner

According to an OpenTable survey, in 85% of restaurants you can order from the restaurant’s full menu while seated at the bar. You might also be able to order off a separate bar menu, which can have better prices. For instance, you can dine in the bar nook of the 3rd-highest-rated restaurant in the world—Eleven Madison Park in New York—for 70% less than you would pay in the dining room.

I’ve also typically found the service when dining at the bar to be superior to table service. Bartenders seem to be more attentive, plus it is easy to track them down since they are sort of trapped in front of you. 🙂

5. Switch to a Table (Optional)

If the buzzer goes off, letting you know that a table has opened up, you can decide whether to stay at the bar or switch to a table. While there are benefits to eating at the bar, which I mentioned above, there are also benefits to eating at a table, such as more privacy and a quieter atmosphere.

If you haven’t yet ordered food at the bar, making the switch to a table is commonplace. I would recommend paying for any drinks the bartender served you and tipping before heading to your table.

If you have already ordered food, the switch may be tougher as the bartender will need to alert the kitchen to your location change. Plus, the bartender has now done a fair bit of work and stands to lose a larger tip if you ask to transfer the bill.

If you do want to move to a table, I’d say something to the bartender like, “A table just opened up for us. I know it’s probably a hassle to redirect our food order, but would you mind if we paid for our drinks and moved to the table?” By indicating that you are aware of the difficulty and saying that you’ll pay for the drinks, the bartender at least knows that a tip is coming.

Final Thought

Would I recommend all of the above on, say, a first date? No. Way too many shenanigans. You may in fact be that guy (or gal)—and I, of course, can’t blame you—but that guy is not suited for first impressions. He’s suited for getting two people seated quickly at a packed restaurant with no reservation. If you’re on a first date, make a reservation.

Question: Have you ever eaten a meal at a restaurant bar? If so, was there anything you liked more—or less—about doing so? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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