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When it comes to making restaurant reservations, is OpenTable a friend or foe?

From a customer’s perspective, OpenTable might seem like the perfect dovetailing of the Internet and dining: restaurant reservations are made and confirmed instantly. There’s no favouritism, waiting for a return e-mail or negotiating with front-of-house staffers. Lots of restaurants use it (290 in Toronto alone), and, perhaps best of all, it’s free. For all that convenience, restaurant owners foot the bill.

That’s where the problem comes in for Mark Pastore. He’s the chef at San Fransisco’s famous Incanto restaurant. In an eloquent, if long-winded, indictment of the service posted on his eatery’s Web site last month, Pastore notes that OpenTable’s fees are exorbitant. “OpenTable is out for itself, the worst business partner I have ever worked with in all my years in restaurants,” one anonymous restaurateur from NYC told him. “If I could find a way to eliminate it from my restaurants, I would.”

Pastore makes using OpenTable seem like the culinary equivalent of taking up a smoking habit: after relying on the service to attract customers, “restaurants find that they themselves no longer own the customer relationship.” OpenTable, apparently, becomes a costly dependence.

But is he right? We spoke to a few restaurants around town and had trouble confirming Pastore’s alarmism. La Palette’s Shamez Amlani doesn’t use the service, but it’s more out of an aversion to the coldness of a computer than anything. It’s tough to mediate the needs of large groups via the Internet, he says. “I prefer human contact.” And he also happens to be a bit of a Luddite: “We write things by hand. It’s kind of low-tech, no-tech where we are.”

Joe Alberti, co-owner of Vertical, doesn’t hesitate to express his satisfaction with the service. “It’s not cheap, but it’s a good system,” he says. “We’re an extremely busy lunch restaurant. In the two-hour span that people come in, we need something that’s quite organized and tight.”

Nota Bene, which also uses the service, reflects a similar opinion. “It’s a fantastic tool,” says co-owner Yannick Bigourdan. “It’s definitely a costly system, but I’ve been pleased to go through that expense so far.”

Still, it probably couldn’t hurt to pick up the phone from time to time, if only to humanize the experience. As Pastore writes, “Consider picking up that 19th-century device, the telephone, and calling. I know I speak for many restaurateurs when I say that we’d love to hear your voice.”

Is OpenTable Worth it? [Incanto]

  • Christian Base

    As a customer, I LOVE Open Table. When I’m looking for a restaurant for a nice evening out, I instantly start looking on Open Table; -if you aren’t on Open Table, there’s a good chance I won’t be considering your restaurant. The $26 dining cheques are a great lure too!

  • andrew

    The crux: it costs a lot of $$$. Pastore says reserving a four-top can set him back as much as $10.40. Which is insane, if it’s true.

  • alan

    but it’s junk… open table says only 6 or 9, call a restaurant and an 8pm table’s available… hate it

  • Jane

    Open Table, while it is probably an expensive service for restaurants to be connected to…it is absolutely necessary in the digital age we live in.

    Open Table is 2 things to the business: convenience/accessibility to the customer and advertising to the customer. Both are essential to running a successful restaurant.

    People looking at Open Table from purely the fee-based service angle are not seeing big picture on how beneficial the exposure of a site like that is on the bottom-line.

  • Katie

    I find Open Table, as a service for the customer, sucks. Too many times I’ve tried to make a reservation, been told there’s no space available, called the restaurant directly for the same time and numbers, and been given a reservation.

    Picking up the phone and calling just works better.

  • Portia

    I’ve tried using OpenTable a number times and it does NOT work. A few times it had said there were no tables available for the time requested, but got the reservation when I called the restaurant, for the same time and number of people. There were also a couple of times when it said it had processed the request and the reservation is complete, but upon checking in at the restaurant, they apparently did not get the request. OpenTable sucks.

  • andrew

    Jane: you got any numbers, or are you just speculating?

    alan, Katie, Portia: that’s really the restaurant’s fault. They choose how many tables they want to allocation to OT. Some only allocate a handful, while others book their whole room through OT.

  • Cathy

    I love Open Table as a tool. I go there first to try for reservations but folks, it is just a tool. I use it when I can and often use it to find new restaurants. However, if I know where I want to go and they aren’t a member I’ll go to that restaurant site or pick up the phone. Some of you are just way too dependent upon one thing.

  • james

    Don’t the restaurants decide how many tables are available online? If you only get a reservation by phoning, isn’t that the restaurant’s fault? If I can’t get a resv. online, that restaurant doesn’t get my business.

  • jack

    The mobile application aspect of Open Table also seems to be overlooked. The iPhone app lets you search for available tables in your vicinity in real time. Great for last min reservations or to check availability. And great for moving inventory at the last minute (empty tables). Open Table is definitely a tool – both for restaurants and customers. As with any tool, you have to use it as appropriate for your business/needs.

  • SeriousShopper

    OT is more a tool for NYC/Chicago. It’s just not that hard to get a table in Toronto when and where you want it.

    I usually do as good or better as a walk in than I do with a reservation. As a result I only reserve for truly special occasions or business meetings. Even then the reservation is rarely necessary except for peace of mind.

  • laurence lam

    I see alot of resentment towards open table and I can understand the reasons from the restaurant’s point of view. the question is: who’s fault is that? You restauranters should make it easy for customers to make resevations through your own website and telephone system. You just relinquist everything to open table out of laziness and complacency. So stop cryiny and band together and do something about it-make your customers your most important assessts!! You could have a mass withdrawal from the open table service and offer similar service on your own. Control your own destiny!!!

  • Alexandra

    I agree that Open Table sucks from a customer perspective. I have tried many times to reserve online, only to find the times I want are not available. Then I pick up the phone and call the restaurant, and presto! I get the reservation time I want. I have stopped even trying to book anything through Open Table.

    I often wonder if the restaurants keep a certain number of tables off the system, for calling customers only. If so, what’s the point?

  • Salamander

    We used it in Montreal and it was great – perfect for a city you don’t know very well and for travellers. Read online reviews, book online… simple.