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How to Get a Reservation at Ultraviolet in Shanghai

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.
Ultraviolet, Shanghai. [Photo: Scott Wright/Limelight Studio]

In May 2012, French chef Paul Pairet opened his 10-seat multi-sensory restaurant Ultraviolet in an undisclosed Shanghai space. Diners meet at Pairet's other restaurant Mr and Mrs Bund (#43 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list) and board busses bound for this undisclosed location. Ultraviolet has no decor and no windows, but rather plays on sound, scent, and touch — right down to the flow of air in the room — to evoke a sense of place and time in its diners. Among the technologies that make up Ultraviolet's ambience: HD wall and table projectors, dry scent diffusers, infrared cameras, surround sound, and a temperature air blown turbine. As former New York Times critic Frank Bruni put it back in October, Ultraviolet "is one of a mind-bending kind."

Adventurous diners have also made Ultraviolet into one of world's tougher reservations. Operations manager Sascha Speckemeier tells Eater that the restaurant has filled every available seat on every night since it opened. Would-be patrons begin lighting up Ultraviolet's online booking system each night at midnight, Shanghai time, to snatch a seat (or 10) at the next table available in 90 days' time. In the following interview, Speckemeier explains how Ultraviolet's booking system works and offers tips on how to score a reservation.

Is your booking system online only?
Yes it is, indeed. There is no phone number for Ultraviolet, there's no way to come here to ask for a reservation, no way for walk-ins. It's all online.

I know that you open booking 90 days in advance. Is that day to day, or will you open an entire month of reservations at the same time?
No, it's every day at midnight, Shanghai time, we make 10 new seats available online, which are 90 days away. Actually, people confuse that with three months, but it is always exactly 90 days.

How quickly do reservations book up as soon as you open them?
I don't have an average time, but sometimes it's the case that people book the whole table. They want all 10 [seats] because they're coming with a few friends. That means they go online, see them, book all of them. Then [at] midnight and 20 seconds, it's gone. Sometimes it takes a bit longer. Christmastime didn't sell out that fast because I just think that people had something different in mind than booking the seats middle of the night.

Do you usually have people online at midnight making the bookings?

It's always a little fight. Who has the fastest browser and best Internet connection.

Yes, indeed. It's more than only one party who is online at midnight and waiting for it, so it's always a little fight. Who has the fastest browser and the best Internet connection.

How challenging is it then for big parties to get seats at the table?
Yeah, it is indeed quite challenging, but that's why we implemented the little feature where one table per week is bookable only by a group of 10. If you are a couple and you want to make a reservation on that date, it's not possible for those days. If there's no group of 10 that wants to book that date, then we open it up for everybody.

Ultraviolet, Shanghai. [Photo: Scott Wright/Limelight Studio]

Is that the same day each week that the table is available?
No, it is a Tuesday, and the next week it's the Wednesday, and the next week it's the Thursday, and the next week it's the Friday, and the week after it's the Saturday, and so on. Then we start on Tuesday again. If you follow it for weeks and weeks, then maybe you'll find out that system. Otherwise it might seem quite random. The date pops up [on the booking site] and you see a logo with a little 10 and an explanation on the page. So it's not really possible to see that in advance. We also have a special drink pairing on Fridays and Saturdays, but you don't officially see that in advance, either.

Those are priced slightly differently, right?
Yes, there is a price difference. It's upgraded drink pairing that we serve Fridays and Saturdays. It's a bit more pricey, so the dinner costs 5000rmb ($821US) instead of 3000rmb ($493US).

What does the wait list look like for Ultraviolet?
We have this feature online as well. People can sign into our waiting list themselves, so they don't have to call us and then wait for us to get back to them. They can sign into the waiting list any day they want. Once somebody cancels, everybody on the waiting list at the same moment gets a mail that says, "Two seats are now available. Please click here on this link and go online, and be the first to book."

There's no chance to make it easier for yourself to book.

The whole system that we have is actually very, very fair. There's no chance to make it easier for yourself to book. There's nobody that has a harder time to book. Okay, maybe if you're in Europe, the new seats pop up at 5 or 6 p.m. In China, it's at midnight. Where you are it's probably somewhere in the morning. That's the only difference. Otherwise, every person in the world who has an Internet connection has the same chance booking a seat. It's the same on the waiting list. It doesn't matter if there's already sixty people on it or you're the first, everybody has the same chance to book a seat.

You said that if there's no group of 10 for the one table a week that you'll release the table for anybody to reserve. At what point do you do that?
This doesn't happen, but if it would we would then make it available for everybody and then mail the people on the waiting list. It would say, "10 seats are available now, but you being only 2, can go online now and book it."

Is it a massive waiting list, or is it a waiting list for each particular day?
It's for each particular day. Imagine you come to Shanghai from March 20 to 30. On the 23rd you already have a dinner reservation in another restaurant, so you can sign in on every day except for that one. Then you get information when somebody cancels on any of those dates. Once you leave Shanghai, you don't get any notifications anymore.

Ultraviolet, Shanghai. [Photo: Scott Wright/Limelight Studio]

What are the chances of getting a last-minute reservation if someone, say, has an unexpected business trip to Shanghai and wants to eat there?

It's actually really possible to get a last-minute reservation.

It's actually really, really possible. We had two guests the other day who booked two seats for the next day. We had a cancellation. They checked online, saw it, and by accident were on the website a few minutes after we sent an email to all the people on the waiting list. They had the same chance as everybody else, and they booked it.

We just had a cancellation today of five people. As of right now I think only four are sold, so one is still available. Someone will be very lucky tonight when he goes online and sees that. It is very possible. It is recommended to check the calendar once in a while. It doesn't happen all the time. If you come here and you need one specific date, you probably will not be lucky. But if you have a few dates that you are town, or if you live here, it happens.

I read that you have very particular reasons for keeping the restaurant just to the 10 seats. You're never going to take more than 10, right?
That's correct, and we will never take less. The projections that we have on the table and on the wall, and the choreography that the servers use are made for 10 people. Theoretically it would be possible to have less people than 10 at the table. When we serve those 10 dishes, most of the time there is an image or a little frame projected from above [onto the dish]. To make it for nine or eight, it would mean that we would have to create new videos. It would take some time. It would take some money because people would have to work on that.

On the other hand, the atmosphere in the room is fantastic when 10 people are having fun together. If it's only two, it would probably not be the same. The experience is made for 10. More [people] don't fit in the room, additionally.

Do you have any other advice in terms of how someone can get a reservation, especially at the last minute? Are there certain days that are easier to look for?
No, no dates are easier. What we definitely recommend is to go online at midnight Shanghai time, to be one of the first. The other thing is it is absolutely recommended to go to sign yourself into the waiting list. There are people who book all 10 seats because they are the first online, but they don't know who to bring. Then they only find four friends who want to come, and then they release the other 5 seats again.

And, finally, has the demand for bookings changed since you opened?
It became more. There are more people are on the waiting list, that are on the website every day trying to book. The seats are sold out faster, and that's still rising. Whenever there's article in newspaper about us, or when somebody talks about us on TV or something, then there are more people online trying to book.

· All Ultraviolet Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Tough Doors Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Mr and Mrs Bund

China, Shanghai, Huangpu, Zhongshan East 1st Rd,

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