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There's a Reservation Bot Arms Race in San Francisco

State Bird Provisions, San Francisco.
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco.
Photo: the bubbletea / Flickr; Photo illustration: Raphael Brion/Eater
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Getting reservations in San Francisco just got even harder: Computer nerds are now creating bots to hack the online reservation system at super hot San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions. On his personal blog, Square security engineer Diogo Mónica has written code (which he describes as "utterly crappy") that alerts him whenever the reservation page changes. This means that as soon as the reservations are released (60 days in advance), or if someone cancels, Mónica knows it. (He also made the code publicly available so jump on it.)

With his program, he discovered that State Bird releases new reservations at 4 a.m., most of which are gone by 5 a.m. While his program helped him find open reservations, he found that the best times were still elusive. "[A]ll the good times were immediately taken and were gone by 4:01 a.m.," he wrote. "It quickly became obvious that these were reservation bots at work." To level the playing field, he made his own. Explained Mónica: "You fight fire with fire."

Mónica's bot, it seems, is currently working. Designed to work with Urbanspoon, the bot basically finds open reservations and books them with the user's own name and contact information. Now Mónica is giving the bot away free to anyone who can understand how to use it. It seems like a fool-proof way to get into always-full restaurants like State Bird, but Mónica suspects his bot will become obsolete soon: "With this script I was able to start getting reservations again, but I know that this bot war will continue to escalate." And so the bot arms race continues.

Mónica certainly isn't the first person to use tricky computer bots to secure hard to get things. The New York Times reported after Next in Chicago opened that tickets were especially hard to get because: "Some increase their odds by using multiple browsers set with homemade ticket-bots to refresh the screens and grab tickets automatically." Similarly, Ticketmaster has quite publicly struggled to defend their tickets from being purchased by bots, and eBay has been working on ridding its site of bots for years.

Reservations scalping went through a boom period after restaurants began favoring online reservation systems several years ago. Scalping services like TableXchange and TablePronto promised users reservations without the hassle of booking for themselves. Oft-scalped restaurants like Momofuku Ko in New York City even added official statements to their websites about the practice. While these services might not have been using bots, their gaming of the system had a similarly negative impact on the ability of non-affiliated customers to secure reservations. At least San Francisco can look on the bright side for now: Mónica doesn't seem to be scalping his hard-won seats.

· Bot wars - The arms race of restaurant reservations in SF []
· All Reservations Coverage on Eater [-E-]

State Bird Provisions

1529 Fillmore St San Francisco, CA 94115