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.
[Photos: Official Site]
With a tiny dining room and only two covers a night, chef Gregory Marchand's soon-to-revamp neo-bistro Frenchie is one of the most notoriously difficult tables to procure in Paris (and the world). Le Figaro critic François Simon wrote last year that getting a table at restaurants like Frenchie and Noma in Copenhagen "is simply hell." In response to the criticism, Marchand has taken steps such as employing a full-time reservationist, opening up a reservation-less wine bar across the street to give more people access to his cooking, and launching online reservations.
In the following interview, Marchand talks about his attempts to resolve the reservation-related frustrations of his would-be dinner guests. He also shares some insider tips on how to best get in the doors at Frenchie, including advice on how regulars manage to keep one foot in the door once they finally get in.
How big is the dining room?
The dining room is 26 seats. So that's small. We have two seatings, one at 7 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m. We've got a reservation manager who does answer the phone from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m., until service starts. If it goes straight to the answering machine, that means we're already on the phone. And then we have an online reservation system through La Fourchette, which is the French equivalent of OpenTable.
I was going to ask you about the online reservations because I know you launched those last year, right?
It's quite new actually, yeah.
How has it changed things in terms of the difficulty of getting a reservation?
I spent a lot of money so that people could hear, "Sorry, we're full."
It hasn't changed much because we still have the same number of covers. We didn't push the wall by doing this. The only thing is it just gives people an opportunity to have someone either on the phone or to try through online reservation system. Before, we just couldn't answer the phone, so it was very frustrating for people. I spent a lot of money so that people could hear, "Sorry, we're full." But this is the only thing we can do, unfortunately. I employ one full-time person just to answer the phone and take reservations for a 26-cover restaurant, you know, so it's a huge amount of money spent. But obviously we have to adapt to the demand. It's a good problem to have, I would say.
But yeah, we find it very difficult because people still think that we're not answering. People still get angry, but I think it's just because people need time to realize that we've actually worked a lot on that for the last year. It's a bit frustrating for us, spending a lot of time, money, and energy trying to get things right. But unfortunately the [fact that] there will only be 26 covers at a time in the restaurant, that we cannot change. The best thing people [can] do once they don't secure a reservation is to come at 7 p.m. and ask if there's a last-minute cancellation. It does happen. We have a lot of cancellations every day.
Yes. Even though we spend probably two hours a day confirming tables, when it comes to 7, a lot of the time people don't even call. So it's a bit frustrating. But that's the game, you know? You've got to play. A lot of restaurants have the same problem, I guess.
[Photo: Official Site]
Do you have a waiting list?
We do have a waiting list, but not for last-minute [cancellations], obviously. We have a waiting list for cancellations made on the day and then we can call people. But come to 7 p.m., if we have a no-show, it's too late. We need people now to fill the space. So, in that case, we go to the wine bar, which is just across the street with no reservations. And then we ask people if they want to come into the other restaurant. So that's why if you come at 7 and you say, "Look, if you have a last-minute cancellation, I will take it." We'll write down your name and then you go in the wine bar, have a glass of wine, wait. If people show up [for their reservations], well, worse comes to worse you can eat at the wine bar.
That's really good to know.
Yeah. But it's very hard, you know? We've been criticized a lot on our non-existent reservation system. But yeah: full-time job, online reservation system, wine bar with no reservations just across the street. I don't know what else I can do.
So those were all things you did to address the criticism?
It's a bit frustrating for me to say no to people as well.
Yeah. I mean, we still have some criticism because a lot of people wrote, "Yeah, once you can get in it's great, but it's so difficult [to get in]." Okay cool, it's nice people want to come and eat at our place. But it's a bit frustrating for me to say no to people as well. Often when people come and they see the place, they're like, okay right, I understand now. It's so small. I'd just like people to know that it's very small. We cannot do more customers.
How far in advance do your reservations fill up?
How far in advance do we take them? Or how far in advance are we booked?
Both, I guess.
So we do not have a limit on reservations. If you want a reservation in six months, you can take it. We wanted to reduce [the feeling of], "Oh you have to do this, you cannot do that." The other thing, it depends on the time of the year, but [reservations book up] between one and two months in advance for the second service. For the first service, it's usually a month or so. Not even sometimes.
Oh, so a month ahead of time...
For the first seating, yeah. And for the second seating, right now we're looking at February. The first second seating we have is on a Monday on the 3rd of February right now. But Thursday, Friday, they're already fully booked.
So it's not so bad if you can plan ahead then.
Unfortunately — or fortunately — there's more people asking for reservations than we can deliver.
You can plan ahead, most definitely. ... We've only got one line, so I cannot have more than one person answering the phone for this amount of covers. It's already a lot of money. If you think of the price of our menu, all the money you pay goes into the food, which gives us the opportunity to keep the price low, or at the right price. It's a huge, huge investment, especially in France with all the socialist charges. We've made a huge effort so that people could actually speak to someone. I can understand how frustrating it can be to try to get a hold of someone who never answers, especially with the time differences and all that. That's why we did the most we could. Unfortunately — or fortunately — there's more people asking for reservations than we can deliver.
[Photo: Official Site]
You mention time differences. What's the split you have in terms of local diners and international?
Regulars are another reason it's complicated to get a reservation at Frenchie.
Well, the first service is going to be probably anything between 60 percent tourist and 40 percent French. Sometimes it's even more. Sometimes it's like 70 percent [tourist] to 30 percent French. And then for the second service, it really depends on the night, but it's usually a lot of French people on the second service. We have a lot of regulars. That's one of the reasons it's complicated to get a table as well. All our regulars, when they come to dine during the second service at 9:30, as they leave they take another booking for the next available date. So it's kind of a little closed circle. That's why it's complicated for someone to just call. For us, it's great because then you have a lot of regulars and it's a very nice vibe. But then it becomes more complicated, of course.
So that's another little trick to get a reservation. You can either go sit at the wine bar or make one when you leave dinner. Is there anything else you could do?
Yeah, and then check the online reservations. The only thing with the online reservations is because we want to keep this kind of human contact, we didn't want more than 10 covers per service on the online reservation system. I didn't want all my bookings made online. And then we [offer] the online reservations for a month and a half in advance.
How quickly do those get taken, the online reservations? Does it fill up immediately?
I haven't followed that specifically. I know it goes quite fast.
And how has opening the wine bar helped change things?
Well, the wine bar, what I'm trying to get people to understand is that the food is very similar [to Frenchie]. It's just a different way of eating. It's more casual. The restaurant is casual. But the food on the plate is very similar. So it helps a lot. People can just pop in and it just makes it more accessible.
What's the wait like there?
We usually have a queue at 7 p.m. before it opens and then it just depends on the night, to be honest. If you're ready to wait, you can wait any time between 10 minutes or sometimes people wait for an hour. We don't push people out. People who are eating, we don't rush them. But I think we're pretty clear about the wait. We always say a little longer than usual so that people can make the decision. We cannot do magic, but we're usually good at telling people the amount of time they will be waiting.