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OpenTable Launches Alerts for Impossible Reservations

OpenTable, the world's largest supplier of online restaurant bookings, today debuts bespoke reservation alerts for New York, Houston, and Los Angeles. The industry leader isn't the first to launch a notification system; Yelp's SeatMe already provides a similar service, while another site called Rezhound regularly pings OpenTable to check for reservations throughout the country.

The OpenTable tool, called "Hot Tables," is currently a pilot program; interested users may request invitations here. The service will let diners sign up for tailor-made text message notifications for seats at Manhattan's Sushi Nakazawa, LA's Alma, Napa's the French Laundry, and other tough-to-get-into venues. That's the encouraging news.

The slightly more sobering news is that this reporter hasn't encountered a single alert for Nakazawa or Eleven Madison Park during a Hot Tables trial over the past 24 hours. That's of course not OpenTable's fault; that's simply a function of demand. And because of that demand, the new system could make it more difficult to find cancellations at some spots by increasing the pool of diners vying for a given table.

The alert process, after all, is much less frustrating (and infinitely less time-consuming) than staring at OpenTable and hitting the refresh button. So the tradeoff for more accessible reservations will likely be increased competition for those reservations. Fair enough.

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It's also worth noting that restaurants stand to benefit from this new cancellation clearinghouse; Hot Tables displays a running feed of available tables on its website. For example, while writing this column, I noticed an 8:30pm table-for-two pop-up for Dan Barber's Blue Hill at 8:20pm. I'll call that one a BUY.

The resy feed, OpenTable tells me, is based on a proprietary algorithm that uses restaurant popularity and availability to trigger alerts. Restaurants are charged the regular OpenTable rate of $1 per seated diner.

hot-tables-3-2.jpgOne more caveat: Users must currently restrict their searches to five-hour windows over the course of five consecutive or non-consecutive days (say, 6pm-11pm, Mon-Fri). That means blanket-style searching along the lines of "I'd like to eat at Carbone in May" isn't yet supported.

"We have not covered every use case," said Jocelyn Mangan, OpenTable's vice president of product management, during a telephone interview. "If that emerges as one of the most common missing-use cases, that will probably be one of the next things we address."

During my trial, I did discover a hack, however cumbersome, around that so-called missing-use case. Those looking to dine at, say, Thomas Keller's Per Se anytime this Spring can simply create multiple alerts, one for each week. And as it turns out Hot Tables shows us that there are quite a few Per Se reservations left for this particular week in March. But that's a different story I suppose.

· Hot Tables [Open Table]
· OpenTable Hot Tables: Pilot Program [OpenTable Blog]
· All OpenTable Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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