Food & Drink

Booking services secure tables, but at what price?

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Raaisha Janghir had done her homework prior to visiting Japan in 2016. Months before her trip she created a spreadsheet and started collating a wish list of restaurants she wanted to visit.

Friends who had visited Japan previously weighed in with advice when it came to making bookings. One friend advised staying at luxury hotels and availing the concierge service to get bookings in highly sought-after establishments.

With this in mind, Janghir booked her hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto well in advance of her trip and communicated with them the restaurants she would like to visit.

“Even then it was difficult for the concierge to book,” says Janghir. “I chased them many times and they said that they were calling everyday but had no response. Also, I was unfortunate to book my trip during Golden Week when many restaurants are closed.”

In the end, Janghir relied on tried and trusted methods, a friend of a friend who could speak Japanese and who could arrange bookings, as well as a more recent innovation: an online booking service.

As the number of tourists soars year on year (in 2017 the number of foreign visitors to Japan surpassed 28 million) online booking services are increasingly playing the part of the intermediary.

OpenTable, which operates in more than 20 countries, entered the Japanese market in 2006. To date it has partnered with close to 2,000 restaurants, mostly in Tokyo, but also in other major tourist centers such as Kyoto and Osaka.

Hiroshi Aso, a Sales and Service Director at OpenTable Japan, explains that one of the main attractions of using OpenTable — as well as being free for the user — is the range of languages available.

Certainly, for most visitors to Japan, this is the crux of the problem: Picking up the phone and making a reservation is nigh on impossible, and even for those who can speak Japanese, a contact number is not always readily available at the most exclusive restaurants.

With OpenTable, as Aso explains, users are able to see which restaurants have availability and make instant bookings. According to Aso, more than 40 percent of reservations made through OpenTable are made on the day of dining.

OpenTable didn’t reveal the cancellation rate, other than to say when there is a last-minute cancellation, the table becomes available for other users.

However, for those looking to get into more coveted and celebrated restaurants such as Sushi Yoshitake in Tokyo or Ogata in Kyoto, it’s likely to cost you. But, it can be done.

TableAll, founded by Takashi Yamada, a former Goldman Sachs executive in Tokyo, in 2016, has a similar concept to OpenTable — it’s primarily a reservation service that connects diners and restaurants. The first difference is the roster of restaurants, which is drawn from a galaxy of Michelin-starred establishments. The second is the price: Each booking comes with a hefty ¥4,000 charge per seat.

“The unique point of our business is that we really curate the restaurants,” Yamada says. Certainly, TableAll is a step above the average restaurant listing website: the photos and information, all in English, are a cut above most English-language restaurant services in Japan, bar Pocket Concierge, a rival service set up in 2011.

As to the idea that some restaurants don’t want the hassle of dealing with foreigners, Yamada dismisses that notion entirely.

“This is simply not true,” says Yamada. “Restaurants want more, new and diverse customers.”

And booking services want these new customers too. They just want them first.