The Era of NFT Reservations and Paywalled Restaurants Is Upon Us

As long as there have been high-status, celebrity-studded restaurants, there have been people clamoring to get into them, working contacts, making phone calls, greasing palms. Lately, though, it can seem like every restaurant in New York is that kind of restaurant.

In the pandemic era — with hours cut back in many cases, and a public eager to eat out once again — the competition for tables has reached a frenzied pitch on electronic reservation platforms.

“Without over-embellishing, within five seconds basically all reservations are taken,” said Steve Saed, who started #FreeRezy, a free electronic forum where people could swap reservations among themselves. “It’s like winning the lottery to eat at these places,” he added.

But a new generation of tactics have emerged to help would-be diners jump the line, including latter-day concierge services, NFTs granting holders special privileges, members-only credit card perks and private “clubstaurants.” What they all have in common is that they will cost you.

“However many years ago, it was slip the host or hostess $20 and bypass the line,” said Alex Lee, the chief executive of Resy and vice president of American Express Dining. He runs the companies’ Global Dining Network, a program that offers a select group of Amex members (Amex owns Resy) access to certain restaurant perks through the reservation platform.

The program, he suggested, is just the natural evolution of that furtive $20. For an annual credit card fee in the hundreds or sometimes thousands, Global Dining Access members can obtain priority reservations at hot restaurants across the United States. “The first thing customers want is access, right?” Mr. Lee said.

But at certain members-only restaurants, a reservation alone is not enough.

Haiku, a private sushi restaurant in Miami, makes a slightly different calculation. The restaurant accepts members by invitation only, for an annual fee, and asks them to commit to at least four reservations for a 10-to-12-course kaiseki-inspired omakase menu annually. The restaurant declined to discuss either the application process or the price.

Jeff Zalaznick, a partner at Major Food Group, was only slightly more forthcoming about plans for the New York debut of ZZ’s Club, which will feature a members-only Carbone. Like the first ZZ’s in Miami, which offers members access to a Japanese restaurant, a sushi bar, a bar and lounge and a cigar terrace, ZZ’s Club New York will bring the Major Food Group experience to the financial and social elite. (Like Haiku, Major Food Group would not disclose the fee or the application process.)

Carbone, run by Major Food Group is one of New York City’s most difficult reservations.Credit…Daniel Krieger for The New York Times

But given that the original Carbone — which recently lost its Michelin star — is already impossible to get into, is it really necessary to have an even more exclusive version just two miles away?

“One of the great things about being a private member’s club, is the fact that you really can tailor everything on the food and beverage side to your customers at an even higher level than you can, obviously, when you’re just a public restaurant,” Mr. Zalaznick said.

This means knowing what members want, and how exactly they want it: How do they take their steak? Do they prefer still or sparkling water? What is their standing order, and with which modifications?

Diners can have all those things at the London import Casa Cruz, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but for a stratospheric price tag. The top-floor dining room there is reserved for the 99 members of the restaurant’s “investor group of partners” who have paid between $250,000 and $500,000 to join.

“I think there’s a demand for curation,” said Noah Tepperberg, the co-CEO of Tao Group Hospitality, which next year is opening a private club in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, in collaboration with the restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You.

In the grand tradition of private clubs — from New York City’s Union Club to San Francisco’s Bohemian Club to the recently rebranded ’Quin House in Boston — these exclusive clubstaurants require not only cash but status.

At Lilia, the Brooklyn Italian restaurant from the chef Missy Robbins, reservations are routinely booked solid a month in advance.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

“Restaurants began as places to show off status,” said Andrew P. Haley, an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. Generally, this took place in public, where discerning diners could be seen demonstrating their discernment.

The members-only clubstaurant, on the other hand, confers another kind of status, suggested Megan J. Elias, the director of the gastronomy program at Boston University: “You can be a connoisseur among a very small number of connoisseurs.”

Mr. Saed said he’s not surprised that access is being monetized.

“Part of it tracks to the types of people that are renting in New York now,” he said. “With rents pushing over $4,000 to $5,000, I think that the proportion of people that are living here that have the discretionary income to spend are kind of more here.”

Still other restaurants — the public kind — are leaning into patronage-style programs, aiming to give certain customers premier access, while remaining open to the rest of us.

Under normal circumstances, it can take weeks or months to get into Dame, the West Village fish-and-chips sensation. But there is a workaround: Front of House, a platform designed to help restaurants sell “digital collectibles,” also known as NFTs, that grant holders special access.

Instead of lining up at 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, the one day Dame takes walk-in diners, a devoted diner could pay $1,000 dollars, which buys them the ability, with at least 24 hours notice, to book a table once a week through the end of 2022. (20 such tokens have been created; 11 have been sold so far.)

Stephanie Dumanian, a cosmetic dentist in Manhattan and a fan of the restaurant, was trying without success to make a reservation for her husband’s birthday when she found Front of House. She bought a token in July, and has been three times since. “It’s been great,” she said. “I feel like I’m supporting a local business.”

Dame, in Greenwich Village, only takes walk-ins one day a week.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York TimesIt can take weeks or months to get an opportunity to try Dame’s fish and chips.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

Colin Camac, a co-founder of Front of House said the platform is simply expediting intimacy.

“I think one of the best things in the world is going into a place just like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, where they know what you like, where your martini is sitting there as soon as you walk in,” said Mr. Camac, who is also a regional director at Resy. “It’s an easier way to be part of that community if you don’t have the time to really invest in it.” In other words, anyone can be a regular, for a price.

“It’s kind of a trade secret in the concierge space that you have to build relationships, and spend a lot of time doing it, in order to deliver these very hard to get reservations,” said Peter Adams, the founder of Table Concierge.

His start-up is for people with money but not time, and a would-be diner doesn’t actually have to be a regular to get treated like one. “You could do this on your own,” he said, but he streamlines the process “so you don’t have to wake up at 8 a.m. or book at midnight.”

For a price — usually $50 per reservation per person, but it depends on the difficulty — Mr. Adams works his connections to open doors that appear closed to the rest of us. (White glove service means he will go as far as going to a restaurant in person to negotiate on a client’s behalf.)

With a week or so warning, he puts his success rate at 90 percent. You want Lilia? He’ll get you Lilia, nevermind what Resy says. “We can get you in anywhere other than Rao’s,” he said of the exclusive Italian restaurant in East Harlem.

Though he added: “But if you want to give me $10,000, I can find a way to get you into Rao’s.”

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