Restaurant Reservations Go Online

Written By Scott Joseph On August 14, 2013

This article originally appeared in the September 8, 2006, edition of the Orlando Sentinel. Figures in the story are no longer accurate, and some restaurants mentioned have closed.

To the attic already full of outdated relics rendered quaint by the digital age, consign now the restaurant reservation book.

The days of calling a restaurant to make a reservation and hearing someone flipping through the pages are coming to an end. In fact, the days of calling the restaurant may be numbered. More restaurants are computerizing their reservations systems, using software from companies such as to track their customers and manage their dining rooms. And it allows customers to log on, choose a restaurant and book a table without having to phone and be placed on hold.

But it might surprise you to know that even if you’ve never heard of, you could be in its database. If you’ve ever called a restaurant and given your name and phone number, it’s possible that information was entered into a computer. If the person taking the reservation requested both a first and last name, it’s probable. If they offered to send you an e-mail confirmation of the reservation, it’s a sure thing. Not only is Big Brother watching, he’s also taking your dinner reservation.

Well, maybe it isn’t as dire as that.

Bill and Adrienne Katz think it’s a great system. The Orlando couple discovered OpenTable last year while traveling to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A relative in San Francisco, where OpenTable is based, told them about it, and they used it to reserve restaurants for their trip, including a last-minute booking at Mustards, a popular Napa Valley restaurant.

When they returned home last year, they found that about a dozen Orlando-area restaurants were on theOpenTable system.

Now there are about 50 participating restaurants in Central Florida, ranging from Carrino’s Italian trattoria to the elegant Dux at Peabody Orlando. And the number is growing: There are currently 5,300 participating restaurants in 44 states and a few major cities around the world. Last year the company noted an increase of 65 percent in the number of restaurants that signed up for the service. Last month the system seated 1.3 million diners.

Other Web sites, such as, also offer reservations, but OpenTable is the only one that operates in real time.

Edward Nickell, Peabody’s sommelier and general manager at Dux, is a fan of OpenTable. “I think it’s the most amazing invention ever,” he says. Nickell became a convert while working at Primo, the Italian restaurant at Grande Lakes Resort. “We had it three years,” says Nickell, who became accustomed to the way the software managed the dining room. The manager or host can go into the system, he explains, and assign the waiter stations, keep track of when guests were seated and know approximately when they will be finished. The program will alert the host’s station when dessert is served so the manager will know another table is about to open up.

If you told the restaurant it was your anniversary when you made the reservation, click, that little detail goes in the database. Next year, don’t be surprised if the restaurant sends a note inviting you to return for another celebratory visit. Did you order a bottle of champagne? The waiter may ask if you would like the same vintage this year. Before, this information had to be noted in the voluminous reservation book, which Dux was still using until a few months ago.

Nickell says he had fallen in love with the computerized system, and when he joined the Peabody a few months ago and “saw that book,” his heart sank. The hotel’s Dux and Capriccio restaurants recently went online.

There are plenty of area restaurants still using one of “those books.” The array of Central Florida restaurants on OpenTable is varied but limited. There are few “neighborhood” establishments that have made the financial investment to sign up, which also means there are few ethnic choices. But those behind the system hope that it will be so attractive to use that diners will choose to visit those restaurants that feature the service.

Gregg Fontecchio, director of food and beverage at the Grand Bohemian, says, “It’s fantastic.” Besides tracking guests and their preferences, he says, diners can link to the restaurant’s Web site, where they can print recipes for favorite items. Bill Katz says a feature he likes allows him to make a reservation and then e-mail, through, an invitation to friends to join him for dinner.

The good news for those who value their privacy is that a lot of the personal information is optional. In fact, you can log on to and use the system without giving an e-mail address. And if you choose to leave an address for the convenience — and proof — of a confirmation, you may specify that you do not wish to receive other e-mails from the restaurant or OpenTable. Even if you say it’s OK, say restaurant owners and officials atOpenTable, the e- mail addresses are never sold to third parties, so there’s no fear of dining-related spam.

And some diners might welcome the opportunity to leave details. Someone with a food allergy can note that in the reservation. But that information is stored only at that restaurant — no data is shared between restaurants, so if you told the staff at Primo that you break out in hives if you eat scallops, don’t assume employees know that if you make an online reservation at Adair’s. And if you ordered a bottle of Taittinger at Dux, don’t expect the sommelier at Emeril’s to know that’s what you like.

As an enticement, customers who register fully with OpenTable can earn credits toward dining certificates that can be used at any of the 5,300 participating restaurants nationwide. Think of them as frequent-diner points.

And all of this is free to the consumer; OpenTable makes money from fees paid by participating restaurants. There is an initial setup fee, $1,295, says Ann Shepherd, senior director of consumer marketing from OpenTable. Restaurants also pay a monthly fee of about $200 and $1 per reservation placed online. If a diner calls the restaurant directly, OpenTable is paid about 25 cents per person.

There are other sites that claim to offer reservations online. Dinnerbro shows Dux as one of the restaurants diners may reserve through them, although Dux’s Nickell says he is not aware of DinnerBroker and the restaurant has not received any reservations through it since he has been manager.

According to Shepherd, those sites operate under an allocation system — participating restaurants make a number of tables available for the site to book. But the main difference is that OpenTable is the only online site that is “live.” “It’s real time,” she says, “when you search you’re actually seeing what’s available.” And you can make your reservation any time of the day or night, not just during the restaurant’s business hours when the phones are answered.

One thing you can’t do is see a layout of the restaurant and point and click on a particular table. She says that’s because restaurants frequently pull tables together and change the dining- room configuration to accommodate different groups, so any seat you might choose may not exist on the evening you dine.

The system cannot guarantee a table. Emeril’s Restaurant at CityWalk is the most popular local restaurant When I went to the Web site and tried to book a table for an upcoming Friday night at 8, I was told no tables were available, which is not surprising. OpenTable offered a chart of other restaurants in the area that had availability at that time, another helpful feature that users like.

But instead of choosing another option, I called Emeril’s directly. Yes, the woman on the phone said, there were tables available at 7, 7:30, 8 and 8:30 p.m. I told her I would like a table for two at 8, then I gave her the name I use to make reservations.

She asked me if I was still at the same phone number I gave the last time I dined there.

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Here’s How to be Eligible to Win Restaurant Gift Certificates

Written By Scott Joseph On May 24, 2013

SJO occasionally — actually with some frequency — gives things away. Most often these are gift certificates to really good restaurants, and usually for $50. 

Winners are selected from among the list of recipients of the SJO e-letter. If you are already an e-letter recipient, you’re already entered to win — and you always will be unless you unsubscribe. If you are not already an e-letter recipient, you can sign up in about four seconds at this link

Here’s how the drawings work. I use a site called Truly Random Number Generator. It randomly (and truly) selects a number between 1 and the total number of names in the e-letter list. The names are exported to a spreadsheet that assigns each a numbered ranking based on when they joined the e-letter list. I find the name associated with the number selected by the Truly Random Number Generator site and send an email to that person’s address with “A Note From Scott” in the subject field.

Winners must respond to the email by a date and time specified in the message. If I don’t hear from a winner by the specified date and time, I must assume that the email address is not valid. In that case, the restaurant certificate will go back in the hopper to live for another drawing.

Because most are physical certificates, I will request a postal mailing address for the winners. If you receive “A Note From Scott” but feel a little suspicious about replying with your mailing address, you can call the number in the signature field of the email message to verify its validity. (I wouldn’t blame you; there are too many phishing scams on the Interwebs these days.) You may want to make sure that is on your email client’s whitelist. I would hate for you to miss out because my notice went to your spam folder. (That’s one of the reasons I don’t put “You’re a winner” in the message field — those are red-flag words to spam filters.)

By the way, if you feel a little cautious about signing up for yet another e-letter, don’t be. My mailings are only occasional and I try to save them for times when I have something I really think you should know about, such as a terrific SJO Dining Deal or an upcoming Supper Club. In fact, e-letter recipients are always the first to find out about new things, and on more than one occasion the Dining Deals and Supper Club reservations have sold out before they could be announced to the general public. And of course you may unsubscribe from the list at any time. No hard feelings.

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Want the Hollandaise? That’ll Cost You Two Laps Around the Block

Written By Scott Joseph On May 20, 2013

Sandra Pedicini’s article in the Monday Orlando Sentinel about the roadblocks to bringing calorie counts to menus reminded me of this article from CTVNews about a study that takes the menu listings one step further. In the experiment, the menus not only included calorie counts but also associated those calories with the amount of exercise it would take to burn them. That helps put the numbers into context, and it allows diners to make an informed decision before shoving more pie into their faces.

This idea isn’t new — there are a number of websites that equate calories with activities (and most offer various exercises, rather than just the vigorous walking in the study). But the interesting part of the experiment is the conclusion that when faced with necessary consequences, more people made better food choices.

By the way, I’m an advocate for putting calorie counts on menus, and not just in fast-food chain eateries. My mantra for weight management — if you can’t measure it, if you can’t count it, don’t eat it — is difficult to follow when dining out. Trust me, I know! Unknown ingredients and portion sizes plot against those who would like to eat more healthfully.

What do you think? Would knowing how much exercise you’ll need to do after dinner influence your menu choice? Leave a comment below. 

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Things Confucius Never Said; Bizarre Fortune Cookies

Written By Scott Joseph On May 17, 2013

Everyone loves the little strips of paper found in the cookies traditionally served along with the check at Chinese restaurants, much more than the cookies themselves, which, if you ask me, are fairly inedible. And when I say “traditionally” I of course am referring to Chinese restaurants in America, for the fortune cookie is yet another U.S. invention. The “fortunes” are typically vague or inane or both. (I once had one that said I would soon have new clothese.) But the fortunes collected in this article from Mashable show that someone in the fortune-writing room has a sense of humor.

What’s the oddest fortune you ever received in a cookie?

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Executive Chef Announced for The Alfond in Winter Park

Written By Scott Joseph On May 15, 2013

J. Christopher Windus, currently the executive chef at Todd English’s bluezoo, has been named the executive chef of the soon to open Alfond Inn in Winter Park. Windus was previously sous chef for Chez Vincent. He will oversee all food operations for the the Alfond, including Hamilton’s Kitchen and Bar. 

Windus will begin at the Alfond on May 27. Opening dates to be announced.

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A Familiar Face in Berlin

Written By Scott Joseph On May 13, 2013

Marys BerlinMary speaks English in Berlin, but, really, what she’s selling is understood in many languages.

I was surprised when I checked into my hotel in Berlin and found that there was a Hamburger Mary’s franchise. Actually, as I write this I’m sitting in the restaurant, though it is breakfast hours and I just popped in to use the Internet connection and catch up on a few flog items. But I thought you’d like to see a couple of photos of the place.

I’ll have some notes on Hamburg soon. This evening I’ll be taking the overnight train to Paris, and I’ll check in from there.{jcomments on}

Marys in Berlin 

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Mother’s Day Dining Options

Written By Scott Joseph On May 3, 2013

Emerils dining room

Here it comes — Mother’s Day, the Biggest Busiest Dining Day of the Year. 

The opposite of Valentine’s day when almost all the tables are two-tops, Mother’s Day diners tend to be larger parties, you might even say family size. Larger parties take longer to serve, larger orders take longer to come out of the kitchen, and so the kitchen can get backed up fast. 

That’s one of the reasons that buffet brunches are so popular on Mother’s Day. It’s a Sunday, too, which is typical brunch day all year round. But brunches can tend to be all-you-can-eat glutfests with questionable quality. What sort of message does that send to Mom? Plus there’s the whole thing about her not having to work for the day, so she ends up having to stand in a line and get her own food.

But if the brunch route is the way you want to go, go for those who know how to do it and have a track record for doing it well.

Most of you should be able to recite this with me by now: make your reservations early; be patient when your table isn’t ready when you arrive; be nice to the people working (they’d rather be with their mothers — or being treated by their kids); and if you find that your plans have changed, notify the restaurant so that your reservation can be filled by someone else.

Below are some of the restaurants that have indicated to me that they will be open and serving on Mother’s Day. I’m giving you direct links to their websites for more information. And restaurateurs: if your restaurant isn’t listed and you plan on being open, leave your details in a comment below.


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Something Different for Mother’s Day: A Photo of You She Can Eat

Written By Scott Joseph On May 1, 2013

Ramirez photo

I stopped by David Ramirez Chocolates recently to see what’s new in the world or premium confections, and the chef showed me something really cool, something that’s just right for this time of year.

Ramirez, who is one of the area’s top pastry chefs, specializes in handmade artisan chocolates. The colorful confections are little pieces of art all on their own, and they’re very impressive when put in a pretty box to give to someone special. But Ramirez has found a way to make them even more special — personalized boxes of candy. And I don’t mean just a name written on the box. I mean a slab of white chocolate with your own photo and message printed on it to go along with the chocolates.

Think of it. For Mother’s Day — which is coming up on May 12, in case you’ve forgotten — you can give Mom a box of premium chocolates with, say, your baby picture printed on a piece of chocolate. Or maybe a photo of her grandkids. And she can even eat the photo.

Ramirez uses a special printer that used food coloring instead of ink, and the photos come out looking like they were printed on Kodak paper.

This is perfect for Mother’s Day, but it makes a good graduation gift, going away present, anniversary or birthday treat, or dozens of other occasions. 

Ramirez says the process takes about 45 minutes to complete, but you can email your hi-resolution photo to the shop ahead of time and have it ready when you stop in. (He can also have it shipped to you.)

I always feel a little sheepish when I show up at a dinner party or some other gathering with a simple box of candy for the hosts. I’m going to take advantage of this and make that box of candy something they’ll remember.

Ramirez chocolates

Prices vary depending on the assortment of chocolates, but the personalized photos on white chocolate slab adds only about $5 to the total, which is totally worth it. 

Here’s a link to Contact the shop for more details. The phone number is 407-816-7400.

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Last Friday Night Flight Tonight

Written By Scott Joseph On April 26, 2013

K restaurant is hosting its final Friday Night Flights wine tasting of the season tonight (Friday, April 26). The once-a-month event, which is held in the popular restaurant’s garden, will be suspended for the hot-as-hell summer season. 

Kevin Fonzo and crew are offering three whites and three reds. Cost is $20, or about what you’d spend for one white and one red and think you were getting a good deal. As if that wasn’t enough, there will be live music, too.

FNF is from 6:30 to 9 p.m. K is at 1710 Edgewater Drive, Orlando.

This is an excellent time to remind you that K is our current featured SJO Dining Deal. Click this link to see how you can get a great dinner at a terrific price and help out the Edible Schoolyard Project at Orlando Junior Academy to boot.

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Chef’s Gala is May 4

Written By Scott Joseph On April 26, 2013

Chefs Gala banner

The 21st annual Chef’s Gala will be held Saturday, May 4, in the World Showplace at Epcot. The event, one of the area’s premier food and wine gatherings, benefits Heart of Florida United Way. 

The evening will begin with a Champagne and martini reception, plus silent auction, at 6:45 p.m. Chef’s begin serving at 7:30 and continue until 10 p.m. Guests are bused from the Epcot parking lot to the gala’s venue through Epcot’s backstage thoroughfare. 

Chef’s Gala includes a mix of Disney talent and local culinarians. Among the restaurants represented this year are Cress, Cask & Larder, La Luce by Donna Scala, Primo by Melissa Kelly, Siro: Urban Italian Kitchen, Sanaa, Capital Grille and Flying Fish Cafe. Guests can also get a reminder taste of the cuisine from California Grill, which is currently closed for renovations, and be among the first to see what to expect from Eddie V’s, the Darden acquisition with a location under construction on Restaurant Row.

At a media preview lunch at Primo earlier this month, I tasted some of the dishes that will be served, including poached Spanish octopus escabeche from Napa at the Peabody Orlando, braised Wagyu short rib with toasted faro from Primo, and arugula malfatti with fava beans from Siro. All of it delicious.

I also had a chance to talk with the gala’s co-chairs: Simon Hemus, chief operating officer for Tupperware; and Dr. Antonia Novello, executive director, public health policy at Florida Hospital (and former U.S. Surgeon General).

“Last year we raised $219,000,” said Hemus, who is co-chairing for the second year in a row, “and this year our goal is to raise $250,000, which in itself is a substantial amount of money.”

The money raised from ticket sales and silent auction items go to fund United Way’s programs, including aiding homeless children. “If you think about the people who are homeless in the State of Florida,” said Novello, “six out of 100 children are homeless. We help them get better with this Chef’s Gala.”

Tickets are $275 per person or $500 for a couple. Attendance is limited to 1000 people.

You can purchase tickets and see a full list of the participating restaurants at the Heart of Florida United Way’s website.

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