In Mexico City, there is an airy, sun-filled restaurant called Contramar that offers a whole grilled snapper, flayed and then smeared with red chilis on one side, and green herbs on the other. The fish arrives on a minimalist wooden plate, surrounded by a series of small accoutrements—sliced limes; tortillas; silky-smooth black beans; a shallow bowl of creamy, verdant sauce that looks like it was probably made with avocado.
I have to speculate on ingredients here because although I’ve seen what feels like a thousand Instagram photos of this fish, I’ve never had it myself. I’ve never been to Contramar, or to Mexico at all, but the restaurant’s name and its most famous dish were long ago filed away in the back of my brain under the category “cool things to do.” In the past decade, as fashionable young Americans have turned Mexico City into a travel hot spot, I’ve watched on social media as friends and stylish strangers alike have made the trip to Contramar, just as one might dutifully peruse the Louvre on a jaunt to Paris, or trek up the Spanish Steps in Rome. Naturally, it’s next to impossible to get a table. Restaurants don’t tend to stay full and popular forever, but many years in, demand for a table at Contramar continues apace: The restaurant’s dinner reservations are booked up through the end of October.
You don’t have to travel to Mexico to find restaurants that are just as busy as Contramar. Maybe you don’t even have to leave your neighborhood: These days, many restaurants are packed, and reservations can seem impossible to come by. Especially in major cities such as New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, full of relatively young professionals who want to be seen as cool, walk-in tables and last-minute reservations have grown more scarce, and once a new place is receiving attention in food media and on Instagram, it’s probably already too late. Try again in a year. At the most difficult-to-reserve restaurants, rich clients are offering restaurateurs expensive watches, private jet rides, and cold, hard cash to get their name to the top of the list.
Some of this rush toward dining is a consequence of the pandemic, which gave Americans a renewed appreciation for spending a night out and stressed the restaurant industry to its breaking point. It’s also the consequence of a whole ecosystem of restaurant-centric media and technology that has sprouted around these very trendy diners, guiding them into hard-won seats at new spots and classics, both at home and around the world. But most of all, dining out has become a fundamentally more powerful status symbol for a larger number of people than ever before. In an American consumer culture full of sameness and convenience, scarce restaurant availability is itself becoming unique. Now, if only you could get a table.
As you might suspect, Americans have long been flocking to restaurants and snapping up reservations for reasons beyond mere sustenance, especially in the extreme upper echelons of wealth and power. But in the 1980s, the appeal began to expand to the merely affluent. Take the 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally. The movie spends a lot of time following young, single, professional-class people through New York’s many dining establishments, and at one point, the titular characters’ best friends fall in love over a shared irritation about dining’s newly prominent place in culture. “Restaurants are to people in the ’80s what theater was to people in the ’60s,” Marie quips to Jess.
For previous generations, a restaurant meal had generally been conceived of as an evening’s side dish—you were probably dressed up and out on the town primarily to see a play or go dancing or attend a concert. By the ’80s, the meal had become the entrée itself, Hillary Dixler Canavan, the restaurant editor of the food website Eater, told me. More middle- and upper-class women were entering the workforce themselves, and dining out became a matter of logistical convenience for people who could afford a nice meal. This was the era of Spago, when Wolfgang Puck became a new kind of mass-media darling by running most difficult-to-reserve restaurants in Los Angeles, helping to create the celebrity chef as we now know it in the process. By the late ’90s, the Food Network had made stars out of Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali, and made their restaurants into destinations for fans. These restaurants might have been popular, but that didn’t make them cool, exactly—at least not with the young, educated, culturally curious crowd that tends to drive consumption trends in the United States.
And then in the 2000s came Anthony Bourdain. “His writing, and then his TV shows, really helped cement in people’s imagination that restaurants were a place to go to seek out important cultural values,” Dixler Canavan told me. No Reservations and Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s wildly successful food-travel shows, suggested that history, authenticity, diversity, grit, joy—maybe you could find all of them at the bottom of a particularly good bowl of pho, or against the bone of a Patagonian ribeye cooked just past mooing. The already expanding notion of what kinds of foods might be worthy of pursuit was getting blown open: not just French and Italian fine-dining staples or expensive cuts of red meat, but ramen and pizza and tacos and pierogi. Want to embrace life, to be a real citizen of the world? Then go forth and eat.
People got Bourdain’s message loud and clear, and lots of new restaurants opened up to cater to hip patrons who wanted a taste—first in big cities, and then in smaller ones and suburbs too. Well, a certain number of patrons, anyway. The experiences of sought-after restaurants were naturally scarce, and sometimes quite expensive. There are only so many abuelas making perfect barbacoa in the back room of East L.A. convenience stores or Italian grandpas turning out perfectly burnished pizzas in South Brooklyn. And once the demand for this kind of food became clear, there were only so many cool new spots with only so many tables popping up in American cities to put a slick veneer on this kind of food for date night.
When anything is both culturally meaningful and scarce, it generates a hunger of a different sort. Knowing where to get the best of everything isn’t terribly useful when everyone else knows, too, which is precisely where this strain of culinary populism begins to morph back into the same kind of table-chasing that has happened for ages at restaurants beloved by Hollywood power brokers and New York media moguls, where the food wasn’t any good but it didn’t matter. What mattered was putting your butt in the seat that everyone else wanted, in proximity to all of the other fanciest butts. As the journalist Helen Rosner wrote in The New Yorker last year: “At impossible-reservation restaurants, the food is always ancillary to the potent validation of simply being allowed past the door.”
Right now, if you’re trying to have a nice night out in a major city, lots of places can feel like they’re virtually impossible to reserve. What has changed in recent years is that restaurant dining’s broadening use as a cultural signifier has set off a feedback loop: The demand for tables has made media coverage of dining culture and tech services designed for diners into viable businesses that have themselves helped ratchet up demand even further. Websites such as Eater, The Infatuation, and Grub Street document who is eating what and where in fine, localized detail. Perhaps most important, the reservation app Resy emerged with a simple proposition: It would show users what was available only at buzzy, well-regarded restaurants, and it would let them join a digital wait list to maybe, just maybe, get called up for a tough-to-grab table if someone else canceled.
For a certain class of diner, Resy has effectively become a one-stop shop for securing the kind of restaurant experience that people want to brag about to their friends. The app’s curatorial approach means that if you’re stumped for inspiration and need, say, a moderately cool spot for a third date, then it will provide you with a list of places you can actually still book for 8 p.m. on Friday. It is a digital velvet rope, showing diners in no uncertain terms which places are hopelessly mobbed. Resy’s CEO, Alexander Lee, told me that the company’s business has tripled in size since before the pandemic, and that he’s seen no indications of a slowdown so far this year: “Every single month is our strongest month ever.”
This demand for reservations has gotten so intense that it has inspired some attempts at reservation arbitrage, both for profit and for the love of the game. And as with every velvet rope before Resy, there’s another entrance for VIPs around the back: Resy’s Global Dining Access, a perk for holders of certain very fancy American Express cards, vaults members to the top of notification lists for high-demand cancellations and gives them exclusive access to certain tables at certain restaurants.
Even if you love food—or, perhaps more important, love to feel a little bit special and fancy—this can all start to feel slightly ridiculous. In New York City, a ton of fantastic pizza or pasta is available with little or no wait. Some of it can even be had in stylish settings, next to many people wearing various types of interesting pants. Why sweat it out trying to get a table at Lucali or Carbone? The best answer might lie not in the evolution of dining itself, but in how so much else in culture has changed.
“In the 20th century, almost everything—all of our lifestyle choices—had the ability to become status symbols because the barriers for information and access were still very high for a lot of things,” W. David Marx, the author of Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, told me. But when you don’t have to know a guy who knows a guy to get the indie records that your local store doesn’t carry, or live in a major city to develop an appreciation for French New Wave, or have fabulous wealth to wear new outfits all the time, those actions don’t hold the same symbolic meaning they once did.
That hasn’t killed coolness, though, even if, as Marx told me, that’s exactly what early tech optimists hoped the internet would do. That’s where restaurants come in. You can digitize access to reservations, but the proper dine-in experience itself must be had in the physical realm, and that inherent resistance to digitization has made them even more salient status symbols to an even larger group of people, Marx said. (Ironically, the ease with which these analog meals can now be documented online maximizes their social potency.) Restaurants are only so big, nights are only so long, and dining out is expensive.
Status is a touchy subject in the United States. Americans tend to throw a fit at the implication that they’d do anything even in part because it’s popular. But status-signaling is a primary way that people pinpoint their own spot in society, find people like themselves, and feel connected to the world at large. Being a total and utter individual, unencumbered by shared meaning or social complexity, is actually more alienating than it is freeing. Hell is other people, but culture is, too.
The reservation frenzy has become so ridiculous, at least in part, because of all the other kinds of in-person social experiences that people no longer have. Americans go out for movies less frequently than they did a decade or two ago, few of them participate in recreational sports leagues, and attendance at religious services and membership in civic organizations are both flagging. In the past 10 years, few residents of American cities have avoided the experience of seeing a beloved local community space or music venue torn down and replaced with a bank branch. And for many people in the trendy-restaurant tax bracket, working from home has wiped out another vector for routine sociality, even if they genuinely prefer not to commute and sit in an office all day. It can be hard to feel like you’re a part of anything when you mostly just sit at home.
Wanting to be cool has always been a little embarrassing, in part because it’s an admission of wanting to be part of something, even if it’s just the Saturday-night reservation book at Bonnie’s in Brooklyn.
(Seriously, does anyone know how to get into Bonnie’s?)