For many academics, with winter break comes travel, whether to visit family and friends or to an unfamiliar destination for your discipline’s annual conference. One of my favorite aspects of these conferences is the opportunity to reconnect with friends and acquaintances over coffee or a meal, but finding a place to go can be a challenge in an unfamiliar city, particularly if you want to dine with more than one other person. Restaurants near the conference hotel(s) will likely be slammed with conference-goers who happen to wander in off the street, so a party of five or more can face a very long wait without a reservation. But how to know where to go if you aren’t a local? Here’s where OpenTable can help.
OpenTable is a free service (though users are required to register) that will help you make a reservation. Log in and enter your location, and then enter the date, the number in your party, and the desired time. You’ll be presented with a list of options as well as links to the restaurant’s web page and menu (if available—most places listed on the site have their menus online, but a few do not). OpenTable also gives you a sense of price so you can stay within budget or at least know what you are getting yourself into financially. You’ll see reviews from recent diners, though as with any web site these reviews should be taken with a grain of salt since they are usually anonymous and always by strangers who may or may not share your own tastes and standards. Finally, there is a rewards system built in for frequent users. Most reservations will yield dining points: 100 for the majority of them but up to 1,000 for certain restaurants (these are typically but not always the more expensive options). Once diners have earned a certain number of points, they can redeem them for gift certificates to be used at OpenTable affiliated restaurants: 2,000 points earn $20 (USD); 5,000 earn $50; 10,000 will earn $100.
For me, the most difficult part of the process is usually making a decision about where to go. Once you have made up your mind, actually making the reservation is simply a matter of clicking on the website, and the process takes only a few seconds. A confirmation email will be sent to the address used in your registration within minutes. I’ve never encountered a problem with the reservations at any of the restaurants I have visited, even when those reservations were made just a few hours in advance.
OpenTable isn’t the end-all-be-all of local dining, and there are notable places that you’ll miss if you rely exclusively on it for recommendations in a given location. For example, that locals-only, hole-in-the-wall Italian place with the to-die-for puttanesca will likely not be listed. Moreover, the number of options varies greatly from city to city. As one might imagine, listings abound for Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and similarly large metropolises. They are less plentiful for smaller cities like Greenville, SC, while my hometown has a just one lonely listing. Currently, users can limit their search by cuisine, location, and distance.
If you find yourself in an unfamiliar setting this holiday season or at some point in the future, whether for personal or professional reasons, OpenTable provides reliable options and can help take some of the guesswork out of planning a meal for a group of people. When trying to make a reservation in an unfamiliar city, especially if you have dietary restrictions to take into consideration, OpenTable can help ensure that you find a place that can accommodate your party without breaking your bank or killing the entire night while you wait to be seated. You can access the service through their web site, or there are free OpenTable smartphone apps for a variety of platforms.
Do you have other suggestions for finding restaurants and/or making reservations in new cities? Please share in the comments section.