On a recent quest for a pub meal at 6pm on a Friday, I was shocked to be turned away. This was a 300-capacity venue in suburban Melbourne, but apparently, everyone else got the memo. The place was fully booked.
The days of being able to spontaneously stroll into a restaurant and secure a table are behind us, it seems. Even on weeknights, you’re likely to be met with a grimace when you admit you haven’t got a booking.
My experience isn’t a one-off. Data from table-reservation platform Seven Rooms shows that booking rates have doubled in Melbourne since 2019. Chefs and restaurateurs around the country say that Australia’s other big cities have followed a similar trajectory.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean people are dining out more,” says Seven Rooms account director Tom Hayward. “I think they’re just making more reservations.”
Simon Blacher, creative director of Melbourne’s Commune Group (Moonhouse, Firebird, New Quarter, Tokyo Tina, Hanoi Hannah), thinks the post-lockdown appetite for dining out, coupled with lingering nerves around overseas travel, is largely responsible for this shift in behaviour.
“It was this perfect storm that became the catalyst for a thriving booking culture,” he says. “Restaurants became so hot so quickly that people just wanted to secure the spot and that’s actually kind of continued.”
Brett Robinson, CEO of the Point Group in Sydney, has seen the same thing happening at the company’s venues Shell House, Topikos, The Dolphin Hotel and Hotel Harry.
“When we came out of the lockdowns, we offered reservations in every one of our venues, including the more casual pubs,” he says. “No standing and drinking at the bar was a big driver.”
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. When the privilege of dining out was taken away, we craved it more than ever. Hence the overwhelming demand for restaurant tables throughout 2022 and into this year – even in cities like Perth, where the lockdowns were relatively tame.
“I think [lockdowns] cemented the fact that socialising, going out, eating, drinking, dancing is a really important part of life, particularly in Australia,” says restaurateur George Kailis (Kailis Fish Market Cafe, Island Market Trigg, Canteen and The Shorehouse).
With work drying up, the pandemic pushed hospitality staff to leave the industry in droves in 2020 and 2021. Migrants – the industry’s unheralded backbone – were also denied government support and effectively locked out of the country.
Things may feel relatively normal now, but this workforce is still years – decades, maybe – off recovering its former strength. Venues have responded by decreasing operating hours, setting fewer tables or turning over the tables fewer times per day.
“The fact that a lot of places can’t fully open with their full capacities is definitely one of the big [factors],” says Brisbane restaurateur Cameron Votan (Happy Boy, Snack Man, Greenglass, Kid Curry). “We’ve definitely had moments where we’ve had to cap capacity because of staffing issues.”
The Point Group has likewise limited trade across its Sydney venues, creating a backlog of bookings and making reservations feel more exclusive. Diners have responded in kind.
“We’re seeing people booking at least 10 to 14 days in advance – and in the case of Shell House, it’s months in advance,” Robinson says.
On platforms like Seven Rooms, Opentable and The Fork, online reservations are faster and simpler than they’ve ever been – and we’re more comfortable and familiar with the process. Beyond this, the ability to save dietary preferences, store credit card details and request specific tables often makes booking online feel superior to anything else.
“People have gotten really comfortable with [online booking] and it’s a really good way from the operator side to forecast their week and see how it’s going to flow,” says Paul Hadid, Asia Pacific general manager at Seven Rooms. Likewise, the right system makes it easier for restaurants to met customer expectations.
“There’s no one size fits all for what the customer wants,” Hadid says. “[Restaurants] need to leverage their tech to offer all of those experiences. They should know how many times I’ve come to the venue, if I like a certain wine or a certain table, and be able to tailor that experience based on my needs and wants.”
In that vein, Kailis has even begun importing walk-in data into his booking system, further cementing the use of these platforms. “We’re really investing in trying to capture and maintain all this traffic,” he says.
The waitlist is in
In the before times, only a few internationally Australian famous restaurants really needed waitlists. Now they’re a lot more common, and diners don’t seem to mind.
“More and more people are adding themselves to the waiting lists if they aren’t able to book for their desired time and date,” says Loren Daniels, marketing manager at Melbourne’s Trader House Restaurants (Gimlet, Cumulus Inc, Marion, Supernormal, Cutler & Co). “We totally get it that people’s plans change, and we work deep into those waiting lists every day to make sure we are filling cancelled spots with guests who’ve put their names down. It’s brilliant that our diners feel encouraged by the waiting lists and our team genuinely loves making phone calls to say, ‘We’ve got you in!’”
She’s also noticed that diners have become more flexible, booking outside of peak hours if it means securing a spot.
“The flexibility of our guests moving away from traditional dining times has been refreshing,” she says. “The long lunch that starts at 2.30pm, a late-night supper at Gimlet, Tuesdays feeling like a lively Friday night, or starting the week off with an office lunch at the pub on a Monday – it’s not all about Saturday nights at 7pm anymore. This shift has been an incredible positive for us. It feels like our dynamic and vibrant seven-day city is properly back.”
Up in Brisbane, Votan also relies on waitlists and encourages guests to consider his other venues if their first pick is booked out. But he says that not everyone is so flexible.
“Happy Boy definitely has that element where people are just desperate to go and you find them being single-minded about it,” he says.
While he appreciates the business, he has a gentle suggestion: “I’d urge customers to try new things. There are so many fantastic food outlets that are trying super hard. Just because they haven’t had that break or haven’t been around as long doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of a try.”