Welcome to Tough Doors, in which Eater talks to the chefs, GMs, and restaurateurs behind some of the world's most in-demand restaurants and gets the lowdown on how best to get in.
The walk-in crowd begins to flood the restaurant [Photo: zEric Wolfinger / Flour + Water]
The pizza and pasta restaurant Flour + Water in San Francisco's Mission District has been a hit since it opened its doors in 2009. The owners could have simply relied on the space, with its warm walnut tables, stained glass partitions, and intimate seating to bring in the diners. But chef Thomas McNaughton's unassuming Italian fare is the real star, assuring the restaurant a place high on the list of the city's must-hit places (see Eater SF's 38 Essential Restaurants); during peak hours, waits for walk-ins can be up to two hours.
Here, the restaurant's managing partner David White shares information on the reservations system, the best ways to approach being a walk-in, and how to get a table via OpenTable or by phone. The key to it all, though? Chilling out.
Can you run us through your reservations system?
We use OpenTable, but we greatly limit the amount of reservations available through there.
Does the number fluctuate or is it constant?
It's always the same, set up automatically in our books.
What is the breakdown, then?
The way the restaurant breaks down, it's about sixty seats — approximately 40 in the dining room and 20 at the bar and communal table. The bar and communal are never reserved, and a little under half of the dining room is always open for walk-ins.
How would you assess the difficulty of getting a table at the restaurant?
Ehh, you'd be surprised. I don't find it that difficult. When a place first opens and there's all this hype, you have literally hundreds of people going there at the same time. So when you have that phenomenon for a few months, it becomes this urban legend that you can't ever get in.
I mean, we feed 160 to 200 people a night, and they all get in. And we keep a lot of seats open for walk-ins. Some people just don't want to wait. Waits can average about an hour at any time of the evening.
We get a big push early on when we open at 5:30. Usually, before then there's a queue of about 30 or 40 people at the door for when we open. They just file in and get seated right away. That means that the next wave will have to wait about an hour or an hour and a half for the next seating.
But there can be nights when you walk in and get seated in ten minutes. It depends.
What, in your view, is the best way to get a table?
Come to the restaurant, put your name on the wait list, and be relaxed about it when you get here. If you come wanting to sit down in five minutes, you will be disappointed. I think anyone who comes to our restaurant like that will be disappointed. It's weird to walk into a good restaurant that's empty.
Just come a little bit loose and flexible and get some drinks at the bar while you wait. We try to make people feel comfortable if they are waiting inside. If not, you can go to a few bars in the neighborhood.
Any bars you recommend?
Homestead is kind of the go-to because they have liquor.
You've given a general overview of the best way to approach getting a table, but what are some specific days and times that you see as the best bets?
The restaurant is full between 6:00 PM and 9:30 PM every day of the week with no exceptions. Obviously Friday and Saturday night are the hardest night.
The seating is a lot more porous later in the evening. Sunday through Thursday at 9:30 PM is a good time to come and not have a heavy wait.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and occasionally Thursday on the early side, before 6 PM, is also good.
It's worth saying that we open a lot later than many places in San Francisco — midnight on the weekends and 11 PM the rest of the days — so come on in a little bit later and it should be fine. If you visit us at 11:30 PM on a Saturday night for a late evening bite or meal, you will probably just walk right in.
You seem to be emphasizing the walk-in angle, but how should one go about it if they want to book on OpenTable?
We open that fixed number of seats, slots, and different size parties two months from any given date. So, if you want a shot at getting the reservation that you want, get on early two months previous and you'll have it.
How fast do those seats get filled up?
Probably the day the tables go live. We have a little flexibility for slots that are that far out, so you can also call the restaurant that far in advance and we can make things happen.
If you call the restaurant the day of and say you want a reservation for that evening, I think 99.9% of the time that is literally impossible. A week in advance is really tonight, two-three weeks there's a possibility, six-seven weeks there's a really good chance.
Finally, how often do you have to deal with obnoxiousness or unpleasant requests for a table?
I have to be honest and say that our customers in general are pretty awesome, and we've been fortunate. Because of the lax nature of the restaurant and the reservations system, it attracts people who are typically a little more relaxed in their thinking.
It's a self-selecting pool...
Yes, the nature of the restaurant lends itself to having a great clientele with a broad spectrum of people. We get chefs from out of town, international people, people with not that much money who just want to have a pizza and a beer, and then people who do tastings. It's all quite nice. The mood of the restaurant is quite contagious.