This week the OpenTable team announced our Table Categories pilot in Chicago, which allows guests to book seats in the bar area at participating restaurants. The goal: help restaurants expand their reservation availability and seating options for diners and, ultimately, increase their revenue.
So, how is it going? To learn how restaurants are using the feature, we talked to Eric Kirkenmeier, General Manager at the Cherry Circle Room in the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. The restaurant recently won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design, thanks in no small part to its iconic 28-seat bar that spans the entire length of the restaurant.
Here, Eric tells us all about taking reservations in the bar, delighting guests, and how he’s using his bar to raise cover counts.
Did you ever take reservations in the bar before now?
No, we didn’t. We’ve always offered it as a full dining experience, and it’s become one of the best places to eat in the whole property, in the whole hotel. You have a bartender in front of you basically the entire meal offering advice, who can answer any questions, can pair your wine, can make you a cocktail right on the spot. You have someone in front of you that you can make eye contact with at any moment and they’re going to be there to help you out. It’s a cool dining experience in that sense, and you definitely feel that twinge of old-school flair when you’re eating at the bar.
There are probably a lot of people who would be thrilled to have that experience. How have you found that people with reservations generally feel about being seated at the bar?
People who have made reservations at the bar have been ecstatic. Even people who weren’t expecting to eat at the bar but had come in and had that offered instead almost always end up extremely happy with it.
It’s been a surprisingly good and elegant experience, because our bartenders are so talented. It’s a low, dim room; the music’s up. If you don’t want to hear the people next to you and just focus on the two people you’re with at the bar, it’s very easy to do that.
We’ve had people who have not expected to be at the bar who have walked away thinking, we’d go back to the bar. We’d eat again with those guys. And we’ve had a ton of people who have named our bartender as the person who has made their experience. That, combined with being able to get anything on the menu, has made the bar a good place to eat.
Would you say it’s one of the most desirable seats in the house?
From a service perspective, it’s one of the most desirable places to eat in the house. Feeling like you’re in the old Cherry Circle Bar, the old-school Chicago Athletic Association hotel… it’s one of the best places to be.
Who you have on staff interacting with those people probably makes all the difference when they’re there for the full dining experience.
Absolutely. That’s one thing we focus on a lot. The connotation of a lot of bars is that the bartender is going to be busy making cocktails and running around and having to deal with so many people. But we staff our bar in a way that we want you to feel the same love and care that you would at a table. There’s enough bar-backs, bartenders, and bar managers around that you’re going to be able to get anyone at a moment’s notice.
What were your primary uses for the bar before taking reservations there?
It was for walk-ins and a staging area for people to go to their tables. And it still is. But over the last four months or so it’s really changed from that to, that’s what we have. That’s where you can eat. It’s not so much a staging area for people anymore as it is a final destination. And we’ve absolutely had many people start there who think they’re going to a table who end up staying there because it’s comfortable and the bartenders are great servers, too.
Any hesitations about taking reservations at the bar? I know setting expectations for guests is a big concern for a lot of restaurants.
The bar is definitely a better experience for two people than for four. If you’re looking for an experience that’s closer to fine, fine dining, you’re probably not as happy at the bar. But if you’re looking for interaction and more for a casual feel, the bar is a great place to be.
Why were you excited about being part of this pilot? Did you have any hypotheses you wanted to prove out?
The biggest part of why we wanted to be a part of Table Categories is because we wanted people to know that there’s always going to be room at our restaurant. We have 28 seats at the bar. Just because our tables were booked, that didn’t mean you couldn’t walk through our door and still experience the room.
Do you find that having people book at the bar changes your turn times or anything else?
It’s allowed us to piece in a lot more walk-ins. Because we’ve been able to sit two-tops at the bar and release booths and bigger four-tops for bigger parties, it’s allowed us to fit more people in the room, period. Our cover count has gone up.
Any other benefits? You mentioned being able to take one-top reservations.
We’ve been very happy with the people who choose to eat at the bar because they’re choosing to come back for that certain experience and those bartenders, and what the specialness that the bar has to offer.
We open at 5. From 5:30 to 11 I want 28 seats out of 28 seats full. We’ve done a good job of making it happen, and this obviously helps.
There have been plenty of nights where people will book the bar and a table unexpectedly opens up. It gives those people an opportunity to either sit at the bar or sit at a table, which ends up giving them a choice, too. At least they’re there, they’re in the room, they didn’t get turned down from CCR, and now they have both opportunities open to them.
Images courtesy of Cherry Circle Room.