Where Restaurant Reservations Come From

A journey into the mysterious origins of the pre-arranged table.

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Here's a crucial piece of social infrastructure that almost no one considers: the restaurant reservation.

That is, until a service like ReservationHop comes along. ReservationHop was a small project to book tables under bogus names and then sell them. When the service came to the attention of San Francisco residents this month, many people were outraged. This startup had broken the reservation social contract, they said: first-come, first-served. 

Which got me wondering: Where did the reservation come from? When did they begin? Where? How? I asked my network of scholars and journalists on Twitter, and despite their best efforts, and some fascinating links, we could only come up with some plausible stories. I looked in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York and all the many other food books my food-history-obsessed wife has lying around the house. More hints, but nothing definitive. Clearly by the middle of the 20th century, the idea of making dinner reservations was common, as writer Evan Fleischer demonstrated with this chart (made using the words in all the books Google has scanned).

When 'Dinner Reservation' Appeared in English

How frequently the phrase "dinner reservation" appears in the corpus of Google Books.

But maybe that was just a change of terms. Historian Yoni Appelbaum and writer Tim Carmody argued that the practice of table-reserving predated the modern term for it. Appelbaum suggested that the old term was "engage a table," and indeed, we can see that was an earlier term. (Although in context, to "engage a table" sometimes just meant "to sit at a table," not to reserve it ahead of time.)

Dinner Reservation vs. Engage a Table

How frequently the phrases "dinner reservation" and "engage a table" appear in the corpus of Google Books.

Blogger Burrito Justice found references to West Coast restaurants that asked for reservations, even by telephone. 

"Make reservation by phone for the greatest dinner of your life" (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

But I still wasn't satisfied.

So, I went to Rebecca Spang, a Cornell Ph.D whose first book was The Invention of the Restaurant,* published by Harvard University Press. She's now an assistant professor of history at Indiana University, where her research focuses on food, money, and consumption. If anyone was going to know where the idea of the reservation came from, it was Spang. Her book traces the narrative of the restaurant back to 18th-century France, and given what Carmody and Appelbaum had said, I put the question to her like this: "Does the practice trace back to the 18th-century development of the restaurant? Or is it a bolt-on of the industrial age and widespread diffusion of the telephone?"

Fascinatingly, she told me that the question had never come up before. (Certainly it had never occurred to me, but once it had, it seemed like a gap in my knowledge that I had to fill.) But when she thought about it, she was able to come up with the definitive answer I'd been looking for.

Reserving a table is not so much an "industrial age bolt-on" as it's a slippage from the older custom of reserving a ROOM in a restaurant. As my book explains, 18th-cy "caterers" [traiteurs] either served clients in their homes or in rooms at the traiteur's, the first self-styled restaurateurs borrowed from cafes in having lots of small tables in one big room. Throughout the nineteenth century, many big city restaurants continued to have both a (very) large public eating room with numerous, small (private) tables AND a number of smaller rooms that could be reserved for more private meals. (Much as some restaurants have special "banquet facilities" or "special occasion" rooms today.) So, for instance, in Elisabeth Marbury, Manners: A Handbook of Social Customs (Chicago, 1888) we find: "When a dinner is given at a public restaurant, a table can be reserved in the public dining room or a private room can be engaged. It is usual to order the dinner beforehand, so that there will be no needless delay in serving it when the guests arrive."

Why did the practice develop? In the startup terms of our day, what problem did the institution of restaurant reservations solve? Well, the answer boils down to ... sex and propriety.

I only have an impressionistic sense of this (no quantitative data!) but I have the strong feeling that restaurant reservations of the sort described above are also the product of gender imbalance in American cities at the end of the nineteenth century--comparatively lots of single, affluent men who could not decently invite single women into their homes. They therefore entertained in restaurants, treating the restaurant as a public extension of home. See, for instance, Walter Germain, The Complete Bachelor: Manners for Men (NY: 1897): "The public restaurant or dining room is the place for a bachelor supper when ladies are guests. A private room is not proper, and your guests want to see and be seen." The same text asserts "All meals in a restaurant, unless organized on the spur of a moment, are ordered beforehand and everything, including the waiter's tip, arranged and settled for. If you have not an account at the restaurant, pay the bill at the time you arrange the menu and reserve the table."

So, what we have in the nineteenth century is restaurant reservations as a way of hiring a caterer or being able to throw a dinner party in the absence of all the necessary physical and social accoutrements (from wife and maidservants to a cook, fingerbowls and fishknives for 16, etc. etc.)

What about the telephone? I've grown up in an era where technology has forced lots of changes in the envelope of social possibility. So I assumed that the telephone must have been an important force. If there is one thing that telephones are good at, it is making reservations at restaurants. 

But, contra my instinct, Spang said, her gut was the the phone wasn't all that important. Rather, reservations, such as we know them, were driven by a series of social changes that made dining out progressively more important for more people. 

First, more people came to depend on restaurants.

As for the telephone: my gut-level feeling is that it, per se, didn't change much *but that* its widespread use coincided with a number of pretty important social transformations such as the post-WWI "servant problem" (too many new industrial jobs available, so it was harder to get people to work as servants) and some small, but significant, shifts in gender relations (flappers and career women). And with lots of men and women working in retail and clerical jobs, there were many more people (in cities) who depended on restaurants (of a sort, e.g., the sandwich counter in a cheap department store; a diner; etc) for at least one meal/day. So there is a real change in the culture of eating out in the 1920s and 1930s, but it isn't driven by the telephone.

Then, a culture of increasing consumerism took hold of the country after World War II, leading to an entirely different set of practices around finding places to eat. 

It's my intuition, as I briefly said in my last message, that what you're really looking at is the emergence of widespread daily, competitive consumption in the 1950s (and then its metastasizing in the 1980s). Such social phenomena don't start after WW2, Veblen diagnosed them in the 1890s, but they become part of mass culture in the 1950s--and with mass consumption comes, also, mass guidebooks, ratings, rankings and reviews (so you don't consume the "wrong" thing). I would be inclined to say the most important technological change in terms of restaurant reservations has been how restaurant REVIEWS are written and disseminated--without those, 95% of diners (at least) would have little idea of where they wanted to go. And one good review of course steers *every*body who reads it to a particular restaurant, where it then becomes very difficult to get a reservation, hence boosting its status (at least for a bit). The logic is that of "it must be good, everybody else wants to go there"--but some huge percentage of "everybody else" wants to go there because they read the same review you did.

And it's not too many more social jumps before we get to ReservationHop—where, for a few bucks, you can cut in front of everybody else. 

* This post originally misstated the title of Rebecca Spang's book. We regret the error.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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