A few weeks ago, I figured I'd sneak into Bitter & Twisted, one of Phoenix's newest upscale bars, to eat and drink for a Happy Hour Report Card before the dinner rush hit. At about 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, I walked in to find a mostly empty restaurant and a rather dismissive-looking waitstaff.
"Do you have a reservation?" I was promptly asked by the hostess.
"No, I'm just here for happy hour."
"I'm sorry, but you have to have a reservation."
After a short discussion, I realized that I wasn't even allowed to sit at the bar. I was turned away from the restaurant that day and I have no plans to return. If they didn't want me eating there without a reservation that day -- with empty tables mocking me -- then I surely don't want to make a reservation to eat there another day.
I know I'm not alone, as three other people have told me their personal horror stories of being turned away (often multiple times) by the "cocktail parlour."
Curious about this, I Googled "Bitter & Twisted" -- and many of the Google and Yelp reviews said the same thing. There were negative ones reviews that said people couldn't get in and positive ones saying the only problems were the "reservations-only" policy, the "no standing" rule, and/or the wait time.
For a place that had virtually no complaints about the food and drinks, an awful lot of people had very strong feelings about this bar (I refuse to call it a "cocktail parlour" without quotation marks).
I called Bitter & Twisted to ask about their official reservation policy. The first time, no one answered the phone. My second attempt was met by a hostess who didn't have any answers and seemed to be short on time (to put it politely). On the third try, the phone rang several times but went unanswered. My fourth call went through, and I got a much more pleasant-sounding woman on the phone.
I asked her the burning question: Just what is Bitter & Twisted's reservation policy?
"We recommend reservations for large parties, and we don't take reservations during our peak hours, like during happy hour or after 8:00 on Saturday, but no, you don't need a reservation."
Maybe the reservations-only trend has already jumped the shark and Bitter & Twisted has reversed its policy. Maybe management looked at their reviews or their wallets or their empty tables (or all three) and figured out what was wrong. Maybe it was just an abysmal misunderstanding by a horribly mistaken waitstaff that accounted for many, many bad experiences.
But Bitter & Twisted isn't alone.
Upon first opening, Scottsdale's Sumo Maya received similar reservation-related complaints from diners, but after just a few weeks, availability seemed to open up, complaints stopped and rave reviews of the food continued to pour in. These days, the Tuck Shop in Phoenix just switched to selling tickets for seats instead of reservations, a new trend spreading from cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Until recently, Phoenix has been immune to this kind of thing.
For decades, the fanciest and best-reviewed restaurants in the world's biggest cities have been able to turn away the laws of basic economics in favor of a more exclusive atmosphere. Rather than maximize the number of people they could feed in a night, these high-end restaurants may choose to not offer a table to anyone without a reservation or to not accept reservations at certain times-- or ever.
The reason these restaurants can get away with turning down customers even when they have availability is simple. There are enough people in these cities who want to eat at the restaurants badly enough that they'll jump through hoops just to get a seat at the bar. Historically, though, Phoenix hasn't been a big enough city (on a food/restaurant scale) to do that yet. Even one of Phoenix's most acclaimed restaurants, Pizzeria Bianco, finally gave up their air of exclusivity by opening for lunch and expanding to a couple more locations.
Phoenix's food scene is growing. It provides an enormous opportunity for many restaurants and bars, but it's not quite ready yet for snooty restaurants and "cocktail parlours" that require a reservation and won't even let you stand at the bar.The biggest challenge of owning a restaurant in many places is getting people to come in the door, and while the Valley certainly has a large enough population to support plenty of restaurants, many restaurants still shut their doors every summer due to the decreased traffic. In those conditions, it really just doesn't make sense to turn anyone away, no matter how much hype doing so generates.