When dining at a high-profile restaurant — the kind that garners press, opened in the last six months, resides below 42nd Street in Manhattan or along the East River in Brooklyn, received a Michelin star, was reviewed by the New York Times, is currently up for a James Beard Award, or backed by an alum of Momofuku Ko — let’s face it, New York: You need a reservation.
Reservations were once encouraged at restaurants, but the pandemic changed that. Bars now offer them. So do finance bros, who hawk them online. And while there are some 25,000 food businesses in the five boroughs, most of which offer walk-in seating, takeout, delivery, or some combination of the three, there’s a certain category of new and popular restaurant that no one seems able to get into. And everyone wants to be at.
“I remember when it was crazy to book a table a month in advance,” says Jessica Sun, who works in brand partnerships in New York City and dines out at restaurants two to three times each week. “Now you can’t go — period — unless you’re on an app the minute they’re released 28 days in advance.”
New Yorkers don’t have to make their reservations on Resy, the online reservations company that American Express purchased in 2019, but these days, they often do. The company started in 2014 as an underdog to take on OpenTable, which has been around since 1998 and remains the biggest player in the restaurant reservations space.
Resy is smaller than OpenTable — the company lists around 16,000 restaurants on its platform globally, compared to OpenTable’s 55,000 — but its influence is outsized. Now almost a decade old, Resy is an events company working with chefs whose names have international pull; a recommendation service backed by some of the country’s top food writers; a seal of approval for restaurants deemed “cool” and those that aspire to be; and a source of identity for New Yorkers with a vague sense of self.
Spokespeople for Resy and OpenTable declined to comment on how many restaurants the platforms list in New York City, but the companies’ jostling for dominance is apparent in the most competitive reservation market in the country.
Lauren Young, a spokesperson for Resy, says the platform’s strategy — “work with exciting restaurants” — hasn’t changed, although the app now lists more small, neighborhood restaurants and bars than before the pandemic. OpenTable CEO Debby Soo says the elder company is “all hands on deck” in areas like Brooklyn right now, recruiting cooler restaurants outside of its vast portfolio of more established spots.
The result is that reservations, once here and there, now seem to be everywhere all at once.
When Ben Leventhal started Resy, he set out to create a more tech-friendly reservations app in a bid to outsmart OpenTable — the main player in the restaurant reservations space for more than a decade.
“The technology landscape in 2014 was stale,” he said in an interview with Serious Eats in 2018. “The advent of smartphones had come and gone without OpenTable really doing anything to update the basic ideas of the product.”
Leventhal, who co-founded Eater in 2005, saw better technology as an opening. He joined forces with Michael Montero, the co-founder of CrowdTwist, bought by Oracle, which helps businesses build customer engagement; and social-media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s now opening NFT restaurants. Leventhal declined to be interviewed for this article.
Resy is now a free service for booking reservations for diners, but in the beginning, the platform sold tables online, mostly at exclusive Manhattan restaurants like Balthazar and Minetta Tavern. It was one of a handful of reservation companies to do so in New York City at that time, but it struck a chord. Within a year of Resy entering the scene, the New York Times had called it “the next step in the devolution of New York hospitality.”
“Resy was this scrappy little thing on the side,” says Roni Mazumdar, co-founder of Semma, the city’s only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. But back in its early days, it had one thing going for it: “It was cheap.”
Resy charged restaurants a flat fee of $189 per month at the time. OpenTable charged $249 per month, plus a dollar for each cover booked through the platform. (“Each seated guest in a party is a cover, so a party of four is four covers,” according to its pricing page.) Restaurant owners weren’t happy about those fees, and they hadn’t been for years.
In Greenwich Village, Mazumdar says his restaurant Rahi, which has since closed and reopened as Semma, was forking over “thousands of dollars a month” to OpenTable.
It’s one of the only reasons he gave Resy a chance. He signed on with the company in 2018 — the year before it was acquired by American Express — keeping both reservation platforms at first. But by 2020, “OpenTable didn’t matter anymore,” he says. Almost all of his reservations were coming from Resy.
The shift was happening at restaurants across the city. Michael Schall, a co-owner of Clinton Hill restaurant Locanda Vini e Olii, still remembers how much he was spending in monthly fees at OpenTable when he made the switch to Resy in 2018.
“It was $1,500 a month,” Schall says. He was scared to leave behind what was largely considered an industry standard at the time — “OpenTable was telling me over and over again: You’re going to lose business if you leave,” he says — but he did it anyway. The next month, the reservations kept coming in.
OpenTable has since reworked its pricing strategy, according to Soo, who joined the company in August 2020. The platform still charges monthly flat rates, but has made changes to its dollar-per-cover pricing structure.
Around the time Mazumdar signed on to Resy, the platform received a massive vote of confidence when Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, an investor in OpenTable, announced that he would move all of his restaurants under the Union Square Hospitality Group umbrella from OpenTable to Resy in early 2019. In addition, big-name investors like Airbnb were signing on.
By the time American Express acquired the company a year later, it had become the largest privately held reservations service in the country, listing some 4,000 restaurants in 200 cities. The acquisition was the first shot in the “reservation wars.” OpenTable, a publicly traded company since 2009, was purchased by Booking Holdings for $2.6 billion.
Resy’s hold on the city would deepen over the next three years. From 2019 to 2022, the number of restaurants on Resy more than quadrupled, as the pandemic shuttered restaurants across the country and a new wave of owners switched their allegiances from other reservation platforms — or listed their tables online for the first time.
Rachel Bailin, an owner of Cool World in Greenpoint, is one of them. She envisioned her corner restaurant as a place that locals could walk into on a Friday night. “We weren’t going to have reservations at all,” she says. Half a year after opening, 70 of the restaurant’s 120 seats are listed on Resy.
Bailin says the role of reservation platforms changed during the pandemic. When businesses were operating at limited indoor capacity, restaurants and even some bars started listing their entire dining rooms online as a way to save money. Margins were razor-thin, and knowing exactly how many customers to expect on a given night helped owners place food orders and staff their dining rooms accordingly, she says.
Those restrictions have mostly faded away, but reservation-heavy dining rooms, including the one at Cool World, have stuck around.
Max Stampa-Brown, a partner at the Garret and a handful of cocktail bars in Manhattan, switched from SevenRooms to Resy in 2021, as the last of the city’s pandemic-era restrictions were being lifted. He liked SevenRooms, which is less consumer-facing and often used by bigger hospitality groups that want more data on their customers, but it had started to feel like everything was on Resy.
“If you want to play the game, this is where you have to be now,” Stampa-Brown says. “Pre-pandemic, the landscape of platforms that restaurants would use was many and multiple. Now it feels like it’s tunnel-visioned on Resy.” Part of the appeal, he says, is that Resy, a private company owned by a credit card, has somehow emerged from the pandemic as “cool.”
It’s not a fluke. The company highlights new restaurant openings (read: clients) in full-length feature stories with glossy photography, and promotes them in monthly “hit lists.” The platform lists fewer restaurants than OpenTable, but users say the selection is more curated and focuses on newer businesses run by a younger generation of operators.
“They’re social media darlings,” the kind of restaurants that blow up on TikTok, says Darshan Patel, a finance worker who dines out at restaurants around two times each week. “More traditional ones and chains that have locations in multiple cities, they’ll be on OpenTable.”
At Mercer Street Hospitality, founder John McDonald is embracing more than one reservation platform. His restaurants are on a combination of Resy, OpenTable, and SevenRooms, and he likens the companies to social media apps: Similar to Facebook, OpenTable has courted a broader demographic that he can’t afford to alienate.
“If you’re a hotel, you’re not going to book reservations on just one travel platform,” McDonald says. “That’s been our mindset about restaurants of a certain size. There’s no real benefit to shutting off one of them versus another.”
Abdul Elenani, the owner of Ayat, a Palestinian restaurant in Bay Ridge, says OpenTable has more name recognition outside of lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn. When he opened Ayat in 2020, few restaurants in the south Brooklyn neighborhood offered reservations at all, and those that did were on OpenTable. “It was all I knew,” he says.
It wasn’t until Elenani opened his second restaurant, Al Badawi, in a heavily gentrified corridor of Brooklyn Heights that he realized businesses in other parts of the city were using Resy. “I felt like Resy was still too new,” he says, “but I was just late.” Earlier this month, he moved both restaurants to Resy.
Restaurants in “suburbs outside of key hot areas and gentrified areas” are OpenTable’s bread and butter, according to Soo, although the company is apparently making inroads in trendier neighborhoods. “Dining is a local game,” she says. “You have to have the restaurants that people are looking for.”
The reservation wars aren’t over, but something fundamental about dining out in New York City has already changed. And like so many shifts over the last three years, it’s too soon to say if things can return to how they were.
“Reservations have removed the spontaneity of New York in a big way,” says Stampa-Brown. He’s sitting on a bar stool at Bandits, the Greenwich Village cocktail bar he opened in 2021. “We wanted to be able to reinject fun into everything when we opened, but we had to have reservations.”
For now, reservation scarcity could be characterized as a New York problem — but as Resy gains a foothold or expands in other markets, the situation could spread. The company is now listed in more than 200 cities globally, including larger markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and London.
Can a company built on cultural cachet remain cool as it’s exported around the world? In some ways, this feels like the perfect problem for New York to have, because it’s always been a know-a-guy city. Now that guy is Resy, and he’s the most popular guy in town. But Resy’s expansion plans mean the problem may come for every city eventually. In some cases, it probably already has.
“It’s already ubiquitous,” Stampa-Brown says. Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is playing over the speakers of his bar, whose checkered floors will be dirtied by pairs of white sneakers and Doc Martens in a few hours.
For a second, it feels like anything could happen. Then he leans over and tells me the exact number of customers he’s expecting at all four of his bars over the next three days of service.