The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it's full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn't even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you'd like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
The world of restaurant reservations is tricky and unfair — unless you know how to play the long game. It’s not even a game, really, it’s a simple matter of supply and demand: More people want to eat out on Friday and Saturday, so it’s easier to get a table during the week. More people want to eat between 6 and 8:30, so it’s easier to get a table before or after that, even if it cuts into your work-slash-sleep hours. More people want to go to dinner than lunch or brunch, so if you’re willing to be flexible and the menu still appeals to you, try to get in for an earlier meal. And if you do want the right menu at the right hour on the right day, your best bet is to plan ahead.
Or you can game the calendar. If you’re not an advance planner, not all hope is lost. I’m not talking about same-day cancellations, though you can sometimes score some seats that way. I’m talking about STRATEGIC DINING DAYS: days when, for one reason or another, people as a whole just don’t dine out, which means people like you can come out ahead.
The specific dates of many Strategic Dining Days can vary from city to city (more on that below) but no matter where you live, almost everyone wants to stay home during Major Television Events, presumably so they have something to talk about with their coworkers in the morning. The Super Bowl is perhaps the most Major of all Major Television Events, and you can take advantage of the fact that literally everybody else wants to spend this Sunday in front of a TV to land a coveted restaurant reservation that otherwise may have been impossible for you to swing.
Consider the evidence: When was the last time you were actually, truly, seriously interested in the game itself? The Super Bowl is only really interesting to the diehard fans — or hate-watchers — of the teams playing, and maybe to people who won their fantasy league and are still riding out the glory. I’m no data expert, but that’s probably no more 3/32 of the overall fan base for the sport, at the most. For the rest of you, ditch the game. Trust me. You can watch the commercials on Youtube when you get home from dinner.
Throughout the year, there are other events that can also bring our country together in unity around a television — the Academy Awards, maybe the Olympics, election results in years when neither of the candidates has been accused of sexual assault — but the Super Bowl is one of the most universally reliable times to take advantage of everyone else’s attention being elsewhere.
On a city-by-city basis, though, the possibilities expand. Consider the evidence:
You know that friend you have who is always talking about summering in the Hamptons? Every single person in New York has a friend like that, which means that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, what feels like half the city clears out Friday through Sunday. The holiday weekends themselves see even more folks skipping town: Memorial Day weekend, July 4th weekend (a friend and her husband once snagged a last-minute 8 p.m. table for two at Carbone on Independence Day), and Labor Day weekend are some of the most reliable times to land an otherwise impossible reservation.
It’s no surprise that DC’s population leans fairly political, so any time there’s a big-deal politics thing, no one’s going to unglue from their televisions (or maybe their offices). Whether it’s a primary, a debate, or election night, things start getting interesting around 7, so anything later is prime restaurant time. If you’re up for it, set your phone aside (or accept that you’re going to keep Twitter open through the meal) and go out to dinner instead. You’ll get seated without a wait, even at the hottest tickets in town: on Super Tuesday in 2016, I walked right into Rose’s Luxury, usually a multi-hour wait.
The Oscars, I guess? It probably doesn’t actually matter, because everyone in Los Angeles is living their best life, full of spacious restaurants with coat check (lol jk nobody needs a jacket in LA) and plenty of seating and rooftops and valet parking. Why would you even bother to make a reservation anywhere when you can sit al fresco with some rosé (or a grain bowl) at 90% of the restaurants in the city? LA, you’re perfect, never change.
Burning Man, y’all. It’s real — at the end of August, everyone leaves for Burning Man, and then the other set of everyone gets to go out to dinner.
The point is: every city has its own Thing — its own strawberry festival or major sporting event or holiday-that’s-not-universally-recognized-but-still-counts-in-this-town. And all you need to do to successfully eat at a normal hour at the restaurant that’s been on your list since before it opened is to find that thing, blow it off, and go out to eat instead.
Sonia Chopra is Eater’s director of editorial strategy.