Why Some Restaurants Don’t Take Reservations

Plus: Pasta dinners at Inferno, and the owners of Lucy Restaurant on their Ethiopian spot coming to Bethesda

At a September tasting dinner at Inferno, chef Tony Conte and sous chef Angelina Coronel prepared pasta dishes in the open kitchen (left, top). Conte served six items, including burrata with watermelon marinara, mint and pickled chili (left, bottom) and hand-cut maltagliati with braised poultry, cabbage and hazelnuts (right). Photo by Skip Brown

Pasta Primo

When chef Tony Conte left behind the world of big-city fine-dining and opened 39-seat Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown two years ago, it was always his intention to put his refined cooking cred to good use by offering special dinners from time to time, apart from his regular menu of small plates and wood-fired pizzas. (The Culinary Institute of America grad worked under chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City and helmed The Oval Room in Washington, D.C., for more than eight years.) 

Pasta-making is so meticulous, Conte says, that he doesn’t include it regularly on the menu. Instead, he gives himself the time to do the job right on a Tuesday—a night the pizzeria is normally closed—through occasional six-course pasta tasting dinners. “I got a pasta extruder and a sheeter, so I needed to use them for more than an occasional special,” says the chef. “These dinners give me a chance to do something different.” Past menus have included buffalo mozzarella triangoli with summer squash, pistachios and mint; toasted farro macaroni with braised pork and olives; and beet ravioli with poppy-seed butter, ash goat cheese and walnuts. 

Conte plans to do a pasta tasting (possibly with other dishes) on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and one on Christmas Eve based on the Feast of the Seven Fishes. There is always a tasting menu on New Year’s Eve. “Foie [gras], truffles, caviar, wagyu beef, lobster—we don’t hold back on the ingredients for New Year’s Eve,” Conte says.

Tasting dinners are $58 ($85 for New Year’s Eve), without drinks, tax or tip. Reservations for pasta tastings are taken from 5:30 to 8 p.m. (It’s a good idea to get on their email list; dinners sell out fast.)

Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, 12207 Darnestown Road, Darnestown; 301-963-0115, inferno-pizzeria.com

Reserving Judgment

On July 1, Bethesda’s Woodmont Grill stopped taking reservations, prompting us to ask several Montgomery County restaurateurs who don’t accept reservations at some or all of their establishments why that is. It comes down to this: Margins are slim in restaurants, and empty seats can be financially ruinous. Also, diners’ behavior contributes to the decision; no-showing, reserving at multiple eateries for the same night, and lateness often result in loss of business. Another problem: squatting, the restaurant term for staying at a table long after you’ve finished. If guests in the first seating stay beyond the time anticipated, the guests in the second seating have to wait—and guess who they blame? That’s right, the restaurateur, who often winds up giving them something free to appease them.

Zach Hatem, general manager, Woodmont Grill

“It wasn’t until 2012 that we took reservations in the first place. We noticed that with reservations on weekdays, the wait was an hour or more for walk-ins. We felt we were alienating people who wanted to drop in and grab a quick bite. Also, we’d get calls for reservations and had to say we didn’t have that slot—a lot of saying no, no, no. 

“We gave a 15-minute grace period—we’d seat you within 15 minutes of the reservation time. For a lot of people, that wasn’t good. They wanted their table immediately even though a large majority of them showed up 15 to 20 minutes late. We wanted to be able to control the flow more and decided to go back to our roots: first-come, first-served. Wait times during the week have decreased to 15 to 30 minutes from 60 to 90 minutes.”

Bo Blair, co-owner, Millie’s, Upper Northwest D.C.

“People are staying longer at the table and there is nothing we can do to get them up. Also, there has been a huge increase in people booking at a lot of places at the same time and canceling at the last minute, if they cancel at all. Plus, people being 10, 15, 20 minutes late. If someone is 20 minutes late and other people are left waiting, that’s a big problem. Having empty tables during the peak hours makes it impossible for a restaurant to make money.” 

Jeff Black, chef and owner, Black Restaurant Group 

“Small restaurants can’t absorb no-shows, and employees’ livelihoods are based on those people showing up. And if you take reservations and you’re not handling them properly, you’re in trouble. If the restaurant is empty and then people show up all at once, it’s a problem. It’s a high-wire act to balance these elements.” 

Roberto Pietrobono, co-owner, Alatri Bros., Gringos & Mariachis and Olazzo

“We seat 65 people [at Bethesda’s Gringos & Mariachis] and we can’t afford to keep empty tables. We wouldn’t survive. People get upset if they see empty tables and you say they are reserved. Yes, you get complaints at first with a no-reservations policy. Certain people will not go to places that don’t take them—the elderly, for instance, and they have a valid concern. But eventually, with any restaurant, you get the people your restaurant caters to, people who are willing to wait and enjoy the scene.”

Lucy Restaurant owners Seble Lemma, left, and Mekonnen Abraham are bringing their Ethiopian fare to Bethesda. Photo by Michael Ventura

Loving Lucy

Married couple Mekonnen Abraham and Seble Lemma, the co-owners of Lucy Restaurant in Silver Spring since 2012, are soon opening their second outlet in Bethesda, in the former Grapeseed space. He runs the business and she is the chef. Together they plan to lay out Ethiopian delights such as doro wat (lush chicken stew), awaze tibs (spiced lamb stew) and injera (spongy, tangy Ethiopian bread), and serve up Lemma’s specialty, girgiro, a dish of zesty red-wine marinated beef, tomatoes and onions served bubbling hot over an open flame. We caught up with them to ask about the new spot.

Why Bethesda?

Abraham: There aren’t any Ethiopian restaurants in Bethesda, but there are a lot of them in Silver Spring. We saw a need there. Now, people in Bethesda won’t have to travel that far for Ethiopian food. 

What is something you want people to know about Ethiopian food? 

Abraham: That it is very healthful. We have a lot of gluten-free and vegetarian and vegan dishes because they are part of Ethiopian food, like shiro wot [lentil and chickpea stew], miser wot [red lentil stew], collard greens, yatakilt wot [made with string beans, carrots and potatoes], azifa [green lentil salad]. 

Raw beef is so integral in Ethiopian cooking. Where do you source it?

Abraham: We buy the beef from a butcher in New Jersey. I don’t like buying meat with preservatives in it. This meat is fresh from there to our cooler. The freshness is very important for kitfo [spiced raw ground beef]. I go once a week to get it myself.

Some diners say it takes a long time to get their food at Lucy. Will that be an issue in Bethesda? 

Lemma: When people come to Lucy, it takes a little longer to get the food, but the customers almost always say it is worth the wait. We do prep as we go so it’s fresher. A lot of ingredients lose their flavor quickly, like tomatoes. We don’t prep big quantities ahead of time, so it takes longer. 

Will there be live entertainment, like in Silver Spring?

Abraham: If there is a market for it, but not when we open.

Will you have the Sunday evening coffee ceremony in Bethesda as in Silver Spring?

Lemma: Yes. Around 6 on Sunday. The coffee, the roasting of the beans, the cups, the pot, it is so important to our culture. The Sunday ceremony is like a social gathering. It’s like the whole restaurant is a family. 

Lucy Restaurant, 8301 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-589-6700; 4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; lucyethiopianrestaurantgeorgia.eat24hour.com

Comings & Goings

Burger chain Shake Shack announced plans to open its first Montgomery County outpost in the Cabin John Shopping Center in late 2018.

Local Korean barbecue chain Honey Pig will open in Rockville’s Montrose Crossing shopping center in the spring. 

Stromboli Italian restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase closed in September after a 37-year run. The owner of Moby Dick House of Kabob next door plans to move into the Stromboli space. Moby Dick's owner also plans to reopen Stromboli in the old Moby Dick space next year. 

Suma in Bethesda closed suddenly in early September. A sign on the door said they would reopen in a month after renovations.

Oriental East, a Silver Spring destination for dim sum for 27 years, closed in September. 

The Pike & Rose outlet of La Madeleine, a chain of fast-casual French cafés, was shuttered in August.

Recently Opened: Check out our Dining Guide for details on Buredo (Bethesda) and La Limeña Grill (Rockville). 

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