In Defense of the 5 O'Clock Reservation

I'll take my fine dining on the early side, please.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Le Cirque is considering moving to a system where diners will pay extra to eat at prime time: 7 to 8:30 pm, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. An economist will tell you that this is totally rational. When you have a scarce resource, like seats in expensive restaurants at prime dining time, there are basically two ways you can ration it: queuing or price. Queuing makes everyone cranky--there are restaurants in New York and DC where you essentially have to win the telephone lottery by dialing in at the appointed time (well in advance of the actual dining date, of course) and hoping that you are one of the lucky few who hears "Hello?" instead of a busy signal.

In health care, there's at least an argument that queuing is a fairer system, but in restaurants, the rich and powerful can still get a table without standing in line--which, of course, merely stretches out the line for the spaces allotted to the hoi polloi. It's a system that mostly benefits restaurant critics and a select few relatively impecunious friends of restauranteurs.

But say that you, like many of us, are not exactly overflowing with the ready. Say that having barely scraped up the price of an annual dining extravaganza, you cannot afford to compete with investment bankers and lobbyists for spots in excellent restaurants. Should you give up in despair that this is one more thing the rich have managed to monopolize?

My friend, do not give up. Let me introduce you to a concept known as the "early dinner reservation". Restaurants open at 5 pm. They will happily serve you then. If you can arrange to depart work a little early--or better yet, go on a Saturday--then you too can enjoy an excellent dining experience without having to fork up a premium surcharge.

Better yet, you can enjoy a dining experience that most people, for some reason, refuse to have. I confess that I myself discovered this by accident, the accident of being born into a family of early birds. My father leaps out of bed with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart at 5 am, and considers 9 am to be practically the middle of the day. I am no quite so afflicted, but generally snap awake sometime between 6 and 7, no matter how late I have been up the night before.

When I was a toddler, my mother had to feed me at 5 pm sharp, because at 5:30 I would apparently collapse facedown in my food. I have gotten better--indeed, I have gone through periodic night owl phases, notably in high school and college. But my circadian clock always reasserts itself. And while I no longer collapse facedown in my food, I have fallen asleep in some pretty unlikely places. And when I can't fall asleep--when, say, a new boyfriend has lovingly scheduled an 8:30 pm birthday dinner at a restaurant with notoriously slow service--I am ashamed to confess that I get extremely cranky. (He married me anyway, a shining testament to his angelic spirit.)

We now schedule our dinners on the early side. And what I've discovered is that I like dining early. I admit, my husband, who is a notorious night owl, does not find it quite as delightful. But he can't deny that there are benefits to being in the first seating. The restaurant is quiet, the waiters have no one but you taking up your attention, and the kitchen is never backed up, or out of anything. And even places where reservations are very hard to get often have something open at 5 pm or 5:30.

I know, you are probably already mentally forming objections in your head. Will you be hungry at 5 pm? Yes--if you eat a light lunch. Which I try to do anyway, if I know I'm having a special meal in the evening.

Will you be hungry at 10 pm? Possibly, but if so, a snack is probably readily available.

Won't you need to leave work early? Yes, for many people, but this works even on Saturdays, when most people aren't working.

Most pressingly, won't this dump you out on the street at 7 pm, when most peoples' evenings are just getting started? Indeed it will. But this is a perfect time to see a movie, go to a show, or browse in a nearby bookstore with your dinner partner. If you're meeting people for drinks or going to a post-dinner party, you'll get out of the show just about the same time the others are finishing their coffee. Or, if you have children, you can get a babysitting bargain, since your teenager can book two clients in a single night.

The one objection I can't answer is that people feel that eating dinner at 5 pm is uncool. It feels like something that grandmothers in Florida do. People don't like to tell others that they're having such an early dinner--which makes it hard, to say, coordinate a 5 pm group outing.

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Me, I think that together, we can make 5 pm cool again. Particularly if the alternative is paying a huge fee to get a primetime table.