Can Restaurants Auction Their Reservations?

Adam Platt’s rave review of Momofuku Ko won’t make it any easier to get a table at the white-hot 12-seater in New York’s East Village. But one of the most interesting things about the four stars that Platt awarded the restaurant is that they’re based at least a little bit on the fact that Ko is, for what you get, extremely good value: one commenter calls it "a steal".

Chang’s inspiration is the classic Japanese bar-dining model practiced, most notably in New York, by Masa Takayama at his uptown restaurant, Masa. But the price of a single omakase meal at Masa is $400. At Momofuku Ko, my leisurely, inventive, often wickedly delicious ten-course dinner cost $85.

“We charge cook’s prices” is how Chang puts it to one of the patrons at the bar…

Should we subtract a star for the absurd reservation system? But then we’d have to add it right back because the price is so good.

I kinda like the "absurd reservation system", actually, although I haven’t been able to make it work for me yet: at least it’s about as egalitarian as these things come. But at the same time I know that restaurants exist to make money, and that hot restaurants in particular tend to raise their prices quite a lot over the first couple of years they’re open, especially in New York’s largely price-insensitive market. So if it takes a few months before I’m able to get a reservation, there’s a good chance the price will have risen from $85.

I would be fascinated to see what happened if, one or two days a week, Chang altered his reservations system a little. Rather than the first-come-first-served lottery, he could simply accept bids, over the course of the day from anybody wanting a reservation in one week’s time, along with the preferred time that person would like to eat. If he serves say 30 covers per night, he could then accept the top 30 bids, and charge them all the same clearing price: he’d give the highest bidders their first choice on timeslots, but wouldn’t charge them any extra.

The clearing price would, right now, be well over $85; it might even approach the $400 level seen at Masa. The extra proceeds could be used to improve the quality of the ingredients over the entire week, to boost the cooks’ wages, or just to give David Chang a bit more income. And I’m sure that a very large number of urban sociologists would be fascinated at the time series of how the clearing price evolved over the course of a couple of years.

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