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Why Diners Are Willing to Go the Distance for a Reservation

Why are we willing to go the extra mile — literally and figuratively — all in the name of food and drink? What exceptional dining experiences mean today.

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Back in 2005, Renée Suen went on her first journey to dine at a restaurant: She flew from Toronto to San Francisco, and then drove to Yountville to dine at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, one of the hardest reservations to get back then. That first journey ignited a passion for flying all over the world, undertaking sometimes difficult journeys, just to eat at certain restaurants. Yes, these restaurants are considered some of the best in the world — she’s eaten at El Bulli, Mugaritz, Quique DaCosta, Noma, and Alinea, to name a few. Once, she flew to Venice from Canada, and then took a boat, train, and cab (overall a seven-hour journey — and that was just the Italy part) all to eat lunch at Dal Pescatore. But she maintains these are some of the best meals of her life.

And Suen is certainly not alone in undergoing drastic measures just to eat. After all, just getting to a restaurant like Fäviken in the Swedish countryside or Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, requires a journey no matter your starting point. And how many of us have waited until midnight when a restaurant opens their next round of reservations online?

Why are we willing to spend hours refreshing a website, fly thousands of miles to journey to far-flung locales, or spend our time and money getting tickets to special events, all in the name of food and drink? Lately it seems the adventure of getting the food is as much a part of the meal as the food itself. Yes, making your way through the mountains in Abruzzo, Italy, to get to the three-Michelin-starred Reale ensures that the journey is just as important as the food, but even the little things — like finding out that the line is only two hours long for a table at Franklin BBQ in Austin or snagging a reservation that’s not at 5 or 10 p.m. at Brooklyn hotspot Olmsted — makes the meal taste even sweeter. But why?

According to Dr. Melinda Paige, an assistant professor in clinical mental health counseling at Argosy University in Atlanta, when we have to work harder for our food and drink, the body has a physical reaction that might make a meal taste better.

“Most people don’t know that our brain works us far more than we work it. When we are motivated by something in our environment, like great seats to a concert or a table in the best restaurant in town, our brains are releasing dopamine,” Dr. Paige explains. “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or organic chemical in the brain, that is released in anticipation of a reward. The longer the journey, the more anticipation builds and the more dopamine is released.”

Dr. Paige says that when people are willing to travel long distances or put down a hefty payment for such a meal, it’s likely because they’ve heard that the dining experience is worth it. “The brain anticipates the reward as a result and releases even more dopamine in anticipation of the reward, causing more motivation as a result of having to travel a long distance to get the highly anticipated meal,” she says.

Angela Hines and Chase Conway of Washington State can relate. Every August they wait for tickets to go on sale to the annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, founded by Elysian Brewing (now in its 14th year, the 2018 festival will be held October 5th and 6th). After scoring their tickets, they then drive two hours to attend the festival and make a weekend of it in Seattle. How dedicated are they to the festival? Last year they were crowned “king and queen” of the event, making them pumpkin royalty. The couple says the festival is a highlight of the year for them.

“Through all the obstacles to get there and just the normal stress of everyday life, having this time away with my best friend and surrounded by like-minded people who just want to drink beer for a good cause — it’s the most positive experience,” says Hines. “There is nothing else like it, for me that time is what makes the event so special and amazing.”

The festival started in the original brewery’s parking lot with more than 30 pumpkin beers, and it would always sell out. Now it involves everything from Washington State’s largest pumpkin — usually weighing over 1,000 pounds — scooped out and filled with beer to marching bands to dancing with corn stalks under the watchful eye of smoking tiki gods. And even though it now takes over the Seattle Center underneath Seattle’s Space Needle, it still sells out, with fans scrambling online for tickets right up until the day of the event.

The fact that the sold-out Great Pumpkin Beer Festival is the only place beer lovers can try more than 80 limited-edition, one-time-only beers from breweries across the country makes it all the more attractive. These are beers that Elysian and other breweries make just for the event, like last year’s Goblin Party from Elysian, which was a Milkshake Pumpkin IPA with lactose, plus milkshake and pumpkin flavor. The novelty of these rare beers, coupled with a one-of-a-kind drinking experience, is what makes the pilgrimage to the festival that much more worth it to the couple.

It’s also not Elysian’s only wild beer festival: At one Elysian Search Party, a music and beer festival hybrid, Conway and Hines took advantage of the free live tattooing on site and received Elysian-branded tattoos. “When we finally get to the festival and get our first beer, there is always a sense of victory for me,” Hines says.

Could dopamine be the reason that so many of us are willing to undergo long trips, wait in long lines, spend hours trying to score tickets to the annual beer festival that always sells out, or even get a brewery tattoo? Dr. Paige says yes.

“When the anticipated reward on the other side of the obstacles is not guaranteed, meaning it is unpredictable, even more dopamine is released, which means the person feels even more motivated! The reward is not a sure thing. An increased amount of dopamine is released, causing a highly motivated brain,” Dr. Paige says.

Resy, the online reservation platform that many restaurants use, has a notify feature that patrons can use if a restaurant is all booked up. “The feedback we’ve received from users when they set a notify and score a hard-to-get reservation is pure joy,” says Resy CMO Victoria Vaynberg. “It’s a lot like winning the lottery because it adds another layer of anticipation once the person gets to experience his or her meal.”

This might explain why people wait in line for hours at some restaurants that don’t accept reservations, with no guarantee of a table. When Fiona Chandra was in Austin for work in 2014, she decided to go to Franklin BBQ, which has a reputation of being one of the best barbecue spots in the country — and for having epic lines. She knew the wait might be long, but even she wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be a four-hour wait. “They open at 11 a.m. but even at 9 a.m. when I got there the line was wrapped around the block. I was prepared to wait, although I thought it would’ve been more like two hours and not four.” So was it worth it? “I definitely ordered a lot more than I would have had I not waited in line that long. The food probably did taste better after waiting so long, but after eating a lot of other briskets after that, I can still honestly say it was the best brisket I’ve had,” she says.

The idea of something only being available for a finite amount of time — maybe it’s a limited-edition of a certain beer, a one-night-only chef collaboration, or a two-day food festival that only happens once a year — makes us want it all the more. Exclusive chef residencies, like the New York City and Aspen-based Chefs Club or Resy’s upcoming chef series with Dominique Crenn, invite diners to experience chefs at hard-to-book restaurants in a one-time-only experience. And it makes us more willing to overcome any obstacle that might be in our way.

“I think at Chefs Club in particular, a big part of the draw has always been the uniqueness of the experiences we offer. It’s not merely us doing our best to mimic what Chef X or Restaurant Y does in another city. The residencies take on a life of their own that’s different from their restaurant(s) back home,” says Aaron Arizpe, the chef liaison at Chefs Club.

What motivates dedicated drinkers and diners to keep coming back for extraordinary experiences like the GPBF is likely attributed to your brain’s release of dopamine, once again. As soon as you’ve received your reward — in a tasty beer or a hard-to-get reservation — the happy, pleasant feelings trigger the brain’s reward system, which motivates the brain to seek that reward over and over again. It’s also deeply intertwined with the subjective and emotional memories of that experience, causing us to associate the reward with past memories.

Conway agrees that the beers at the GPBF likely wouldn’t taste the same anywhere else. “Heading into a store or bar doesn’t have the fun or pomp and circumstance that the festival has,” he says. “And if you’re able to find a unique beer that you had at the festival somewhere else later on, then you have that mindset of the good times you had before and you try to recapture that glory over and over again.”

Chandra also traveled to Lummi Island in Washington State to eat at Willows Inn, which is reachable only by ferry after an hour-and-a-half drive from Seattle. When asked if she thought the food would taste as good as it would if she could get to the restaurant just by walking down the street, she responded, “I don’t think it would. I think being on that island really makes the experience so special. The journey is part of the experience.”

by Devorah Lev-Tov

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