Ann Verme and her husband had a memorable dinner on the patio of south Minneapolis restaurant Corner Table last summer. By all accounts it was a perfect evening. Only, it wasn't the dinner they had hoped for.
They had wanted to eat at nearby Revival, the fried chicken joint owned by the same restaurateurs as Corner Table, three blocks away. The wait, however, was too long.
Like a number of casual Twin Cities restaurants that have gained cult followings, Revival does not take reservations. The mania surrounding these establishments, fueled by media coverage and Instagram-ready dishes, has led to long lines in cramped quarters while would-be diners battle their own patience for a hot seat. While most high-end restaurants in the Twin Cities take reservations, leaving the bar open for walk-ins, some of the most popular eateries remain steadfast that their tables should be a free-for-all.
These restaurants defend their no-reservations policy, saying it curtails no-shows, keeps tables turning faster and creates an egalitarian way for everyone who wants to get in.
"I've never been a reservation kind of restaurateur," said Luke Shimp, owner of North Loop eateries Red Rabbit and Red Cow. "If you do reservations, it becomes a different kind of dining experience."
But some diners are frustrated by the inability to guarantee a night out at a popular eatery without a wait, and are all but boycotting restaurants that don't give them the option to plan ahead.
"As a parent with two small children, coordinating baby sitters or grandparents and not knowing how long you will be gone really creates problems," said Judd MacKinnon of Plymouth. "The result being I avoid restaurants that I would really like to check out."
At Revival's Minneapolis location, owner Nick Rancone has seen the wait at peak times hit a maximum of three hours, although two would be more typical on a Saturday night.
"I feel bad that people feel like they can't get in," Rancone said, adding, "It's not personal. It's how our dining culture works."
Changing the policy just wouldn't suit the concept of a chicken and burger spot, he said.
"There's an innate casualness," and having to plan ahead for a table would mean "you can't go on a craving or a whim."
Hola Arepa, in south Minneapolis, renowned for its cornmeal cakes — and long waits to get them — also sees itself first and foremost as a casual spot where neighbors can show up without having to make a reservation.
"We're definitely a destination restaurant for some," said chef/owner Christina Nguyen, "but we felt if we reserved our tables, our neighbors might get scared away."
Despite holding fast to their policies, some restaurant owners are trying ease customers' waits. They steer diners to early dinners and weekdays, when there are often shorter waits. They also make an effort to accommodate larger groups with advance notice.
In December, 70-seat Hola Arepa installed a heated vestibule where guests can wait. Before that, they had to stand outside. In certain temperatures, they refused to do so.
"We were realizing we were losing some business because there wasn't space for people," Nguyen said.
At the North Loop's new Italian spot Red Rabbit, guests can log on to an app, No Wait, that puts them in a virtual queue without having to be physically present. Sister restaurant Red Cow, which can see peak waits up to two hours, uses the app to text guests when their table is ready.
At six-year-old Tilia in southwest Minneapolis, waits still can reach up to 90 minutes on a Friday night. That's because there are only 12 tables.
"If we were to reserve part and keep some for walk-ins, we would spend a lot of time telling people no, that we're all full," said chef/owner Steven Brown.
But he is flexible for large groups and people with special needs — for example, someone who had hip surgery and can't stand for long periods. "Rules are meant to be broken," he said.
Still, his regulars know the drill — get there early, vie for a seat at the bar and keep an open mind.
Rancone advises would-be Revival diners to roll the wait time into the experience and make a night of it. The St. Paul outpost is on a strip of Selby Avenue with bars and shops that people can patronize while they wait for the restaurant's legendary "Tennessee hot" chicken. Back at its Minneapolis location, those who don't want to cluster in its tiny bar can kill time at a nearby record store, coffee shop and the Lowbrow bar.
"Everybody feels the overflow," Rancone said. That includes Corner Table, his fine-dining establishment on Nicollet Avenue, which lets in some Revival castoffs.
Like Corner Table, most higher-end Twin Cities restaurants offer a mix of reserved tables and first-come-first-served spaces, usually in the bar. Having an idea of approximately how many people will come through the restaurant in a given night helps managers have the necessary food and staff on hand.
And staggering reservations prevents the dining room and the kitchen from overload. It's also a way to record diners' preferences, so servers can be at the ready upon return visits.
"It's something that helps me capture a better understanding of our guests," said Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and the new Bellecour in Wayzata, which was fully booked through early May beofre it was even opened.
Besides, there's the convenience. "If you're going to drive to Wayzata, and live in St. Paul, as long as you have a reservation, you know you don't have to wait two hours," Kaysen said.
To be sure, not all diners have their act together when it comes to making reservations, and some prefer a more flexible approach.
After a Valentine's Day weekend getaway fell through, David Martinson and his wife were stuck in Minneapolis without a reservation.
They decided to chance it, walking into Spoon and Stable and immediately scoring two seats at a bar along the front window.
"If it weren't for their no-reservation policy on bar seating," Martinson said, "we would have sat at home eating Parkway Pizza in our jammies.