In a world where so many things are available on demand, from TV shows to late night dates, the cocktail bar seemed like a realm where romance — a well-stirred mix of spontaneity and chance — was intact. After all, it takes a bit of luck to snag a spot at a fancy, walk-in waterhole. Now, the nature of the cocktail bar could change as establishments increasingly turn to Resy and OpenTable to improve customer sales. Just as video killed the radio star, are algorithms coming for the spirit of the cocktail bar?
While some see the idea of planning a fancy drink outing in advance as the end of spontaneity, others aren’t so sure. bar expert and Drink what you want Cocktail travel guide author John deBary thinks that while using reservation apps is “less sexy,” it’s an overall positive force. deBary, who previously ran the bar at famed New York dive bar Please Don’t Tell (better known as PDT), recalls the culture of exclusivity that once surrounded cocktail bars. Even in establishments where reservations were already standard, they were almost impossible to come by; PDT, for example, didn’t take more than 24 guests, which “really limited how many people we could bring,” deBary said. Additionally, there was a lot of “inside texting” throughout the cocktail bar scene in general, he recalled, leading to schemes that favored people in the store or customers who were personal friends of the bartender or owner. Apps, on the other hand, have a democratizing effect. “It seems more accessible and hospitable to me 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 are not necessarily detrimental to spontaneity either. Let’s say your friend is late for dinner and you decide to move the reservation back an hour. “In that time, you can check out Resy, find and access a vacancy at a nearby bar,” deBary said. Instead of bitching about your perpetually late 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, beverage writer and author of Zero Proof: 90 Alcohol-Free Mindful Drinking Recipes, also supports cocktail bar reservations, particularly in more intimate bars where space is at a premium and service is seated only (no standing). With a little advance planning, customers can reserve a table at a specific hour—and spend less time waiting outside on the sidewalk.
For traditionalists who refuse to download the reservation apps, there are workarounds to score a seat — and keep all the impulsiveness of “Hey, want to grab a drink?” As Ramirez recommended, “Be patient. Always be polite.” Even in bars where Ramirez considers himself a regular, “I don’t always have a seat when I walk in — and I don’t expect to.” If you’re friendly and don’t put undue pressure on the establishment , the host can sometimes return the gesture with even faster adaptation. “As with all things in life, kindness opens many doors,” she added.
Esther Tseng, a Los Angeles-based author and Academy Chair for the World’s 50 Best Bars, agrees that you can still book a table at a popular cocktail bar on the spur of the moment. Visiting off-peak makes a big difference, “like Monday to Wednesday before 6:30pm or before the bar or restaurant closes,” she recommended. In other words, if you’re thirsty, there will always be a way.
Much like restaurants resisting delivery, certain bars will continue to resist reservation apps. These facilities won’t compromise spontaneity, but the price can be a touch of exclusivity, difficulty getting a table, or just a very long wait. There’s a chance that more and more bars will become available as clickable time slots over time – but that doesn’t mean the experience changes as soon as you walk in the door.
I went to school in New York in the early 80’s and remember the heyday of speakeasy-style cocktail bars like the legendary Milk & Honey. I saved my college paychecks to pay the bill for a slightly smoky honey and ginger penicillin cocktail. Walking through the door (or, rather, finding the unmarked entrance on a gloomy downtown street—that is, New York)—was your ticket to a front-row seat to watch someone create a bespoke, carefully prepared Drink measures and mixes to hear the clacking of the ice in the shaker to taste something I would not dream of making myself. Had we just booked a table online would that have diminished the magic? I doubt it.