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.
Though chef Ben Shewry and his Melbourne restaurant have been on the rise for some time, booking a table at Attica became appreciably more challenging earlier this year. Like so many restaurants before it, Attica's debut on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list — at spot #21 — changed the game. The jump in reservations due to the 50 Best list means that Attica is pretty much all booked up for the rest of 2013. And, come January, Attica will change its reservation system to deal with the increased demand.
But here now, restaurant manager Banjo Harris Plane explains how to get a reservation at Attica, the "surprisingly high" odds of getting in off the waiting list, and why it's helpful to keep an eye on the restaurant's Twitter account for a last-minute table.
How big is the dining room?
The restaurant can seat up to 60 people. We are only open for dinner five nights a week, and we just do one seating per evening. We're not open for lunches at all.
What is the demand like for reservations at Attica?
Fairly high, though obviously it took quite a large spike when the more recent San Pellegrino World's 50 Best awards were announced. We were sort of reasonably busy up until then, but it definitely took off since then. So, at the moment, an average evening would have us fully booked at 60 guests and a further 100 guests on the waiting list.
What exactly was the change like with the 50 Best? How would you gauge that?
Before the World's 50 Best was announced, I suppose we were full most evenings, but the waiting list wasn't so large. We were just kind of just doing enough numbers to fill the restaurant. And now definitely there's sufficient demand to warrant a waiting list for every evening. Indeed, we're booked out for quite a way in advance.
How far in advance will a day's reservations fill up?
At the moment, we are only accepting bookings until the end of 2013. And, apart from an odd table here and there on a few random evenings, we are fully booked for the rest of the year. So I suppose that's a five months in advance kind of thing. From the beginning of 2014, because of this enormous spike, we're going to adjust our reservations policy. We're going to move to a three months in advance reservations system, which I think is fairly standard across a lot of restaurants that have this kind of demand. [UPDATE 10/18: The system has officially been changed, per the restaurant's website: "Bookings are now available up to a maximum of three months in advance. We are currently taking bookings for the month of January 2014. On the 1st of November 2013, we will open bookings for the month of February 2014.
From then on, bookings will become available on the first of each month for three months ahead of time.]
What has the system been?
The system has been that at the beginning of each year, we just start taking bookings for the entire year. So if people are organized enough and can plan far enough ahead, then they can make a booking for any date in that year. That's worked fine because we haven't had the amount of demand that has definitely been generated in the last six months.
When was it that you realized you were booked up through the end of the year?
That only happened quite recently, to be honest. There's been probably in the last two weeks. Definitely when the World's 50 Best was announced there was a large spike and we started booking out for a lot of Fridays and Saturdays. There's quite a lot of dining culture here [in Melbourne], so a lot of locals and definitely the international interest has increased as well. We do have quite a lot of international visitors now.
Do you keep any percentage of international visitors?
I would say on average it's one table per night. There are 17 tables.
And you said the waiting list is about 100 people long?
Yeah, that's about average. Tonight it's 78, but I know that on Saturday we've got 145 people on the waiting list. It's an average of about 100. A little bit less earlier in the week, but then Fridays and Saturdays on the weekends are traditionally busier nights.
So what are someone's chances of getting in off the waiting list?
Surprisingly high. Because of the way the current system is set up in that we're taking bookings sort of up to six months in advance, people that do make those bookings often find themselves in a situation where they can't attend or can't honor their reservation. So, say it's a week out and they cancel their booking, we then start contacting people from the waiting list. And quite often a lot of those people have already made plans. If there is someone who is really keen to dine with us and they're able to juggle things around, it's definitely worthwhile being on the waiting list.
Do you call all of your reservations a week or a couple days ahead of time to confirm? How much lead time is there?
We call all of our reservations one week beforehand to reconfirm their reservations. And then if they do cancel, that gives us ample time to contact people from the waiting list.
I saw that you guys occasionally take to Twitter to fill last-minute cancellations. How often does that happen?
We've had a few unfortunate incidents where people either don't show up or they call one hour beforehand and say they're not coming. It happens. Sometimes it can't be helped and sometimes people are inconsiderate. It goes both ways. In that case, we try and use any means possible to let people know. So, yes, Twitter has been helpful in that respect on a couple of occasions.
Ben said in an interview last year that the Tuesday night dinners are the hardest to book. Is that still the case?
I think at the moment, Tuesdays and Saturdays are kind of on a par. Saturday is obviously the more traditional night for restaurants to be really busy. Just to give you an example, on Saturday nights we offer our regular menu, which is an eight-course menu and it's $180. On Tuesdays, we offer a five-course menu and it's $95. Although there's a few more courses on Saturday, it's nearly half the price on Tuesday, and I think that's definitely an attractive proposition for people.
The other plus is on Tuesday nights it's a completely different menu every week, whereas we only adjust the regular menu seasonally, I suppose. A couple of dishes might change every three months or so. The chance to taste different dishes coming from the Attica kitchen is definitely an attractive proposition as well. So Tuesdays have been really great for us and are always very busy.
Do a lot of locals come in that night then?
Yeah definitely. We have a lot of regulars who will sort of only come back on Tuesdays simply because they do like seeing a range of different dishes. I think that's in part responsible for the popularity of the night.
And so if you can't get reservations the official way, is there any other way to get in? Do you have any advice?
Yeah, we are pretty heavily booked for the rest of the year, but with that being said, we certainly keep an extensive waiting list. If people communicate to us when they're making a reservation that perhaps they're joining us from overseas or perhaps they're exceptionally keen to eat with us, we'll always make a note of that next to their reservation. Then when we are contacting the waiting list, that will certainly act in their favor.
I'm curious, do you have people on the waiting list who only try to make the reservation a night or two ahead of time or all they all way in advance?
We're constantly taking phone calls the day before or on the day from people looking for a table. As busy as we think we are, it's easy to get caught in that little bubble of the restaurant world. There are plenty of people who don't know how busy the restaurant is and they don't realize perhaps that a booking does need to be made so far in advance. We're constantly taking inquiries on the day.
Do those people ever get in?
Um. (laughs) It probably happens. I can't recall it happening, but I'm sure it has happened in the past. If they have called on the day and we have taken a cancellation, then quite often no one else from the list is able to attend. Like I said, quite often people do make other plans.
So there's some amount of hope for the procrastinators.
Yeah definitely. Look, we always encourage people to leave their details on the waiting list. I think you're in a far better position to have your name on there than to not.
And is there anything else we need to know about the reservation process at Attica?
Not really. I think it's all fairly standard. We take reservations via email and via phone. We prefer not to take reservations via Twitter. People are more than welcome to contact us in the regular means and we will always spend time trying to find a suitable date for them to come and dine within the perimeters that we're open.
Okay, so for the few openings you have left for the rest of the year, they can just ask you what times are available for them to come in?
Yeah exactly. And then we can just scan through our reservations and find a particular date and a time. The reservation system that we use is fairly advanced, I suppose. We're able to navigate across a number of months and days and easily see what tables we might have available.