We don't want to judge, but do you really want an app telling you the romantic place to go? Save the special occasion advice for human intelligence.
— Jason Clampet
Where to eat dinner is a high-stakes question, and never more so than on Valentine’s Day. There’s the double-edged challenge of picking from a seemingly infinite pool of restaurants, even as seats at the most prime spots are gone, as is the case with any reservation that’s not at 5:30 or 10 p.m.
OpenTable has heard the bickering. The online restaurant reservations service has just introduced its Matchmaker tool, designed to let people scroll through options to pick a mutually approved place to eat, for Valentine’s Day and beyond.
It picked the launch date for a reason: According to company data, the average person makes a Valentine’s Day reservation 11 days ahead of the holiday. “With Matchmaker, the idea was not only to make Valentine’s Day planning easy, but also fun,” says Caroline Potter, the service’s chief dining officer. OpenTable reports it was the company’s most booked holiday of 2018; its data also show that 96 percent of celebrants plan ahead—only 4 percent make last-minute Valentine’s Day reservations. (The earliest booking was made on Jan. 27, 2017—for Feb. 14, 2018.)
The problem of fighting over whether both parties of a couple are feeling fancy French food or a big porterhouse isn’t confined to dinner on Feb. 14. A poll of 2,000 people conducted by OpenTable, a division of Booking Holdings Inc., revealed that 1 in 2 diners would rather wash dishes than argue about where to eat. Four in 10 people let their partner decide where to dine to avoid a fight, while almost 1 in 2 singles believe the place they pick for a first date can have a major impact on the other person’s opinion of him or her.
The Matchmaker tool, which is available nationally, lets you cycle through options including “It’s a date” or “Celebrating with friends,” as well as “Cheaper is better” or “I’m going all out.” There’s a modest selection of cuisines, such as American, steakhouse, Mexican, and vegetarian. Then you can pick the vibe, from “Formal and Fancy” to “Romantic” or “Casual and Low Key.” (Good luck to those couples on the keto diet who want to party.)
Given how much data the company has on people and their dining habits—OpenTable helps an average of 27 million diners a month find a place to eat—the number of categories is relatively modest; only eight cuisines are offered if you decide you’re “going all out.” Nick Kokonas, founder of the competing Tock reservations system, sees more opportunities for searches than are offered by OpenTable’s tool, which he describes as “just a search for a restaurant for a day.” His site, he says, promotes experiences.
At the Office in New York, which Kokonas co-owns, celebrants can eat V-Day oysters and know that a portion of each reservation goes to the Billion Oyster Project, which restores reefs around New York. (OpenTable maintains its new tool is a fun way to find a restaurant on a high-pressure night. Although Matchmaker was built specifically for Valentine’s Day, the company says it will assess the diner usage and feedback and consider a more permanent feature on the site.)
Resy, another restaurant reservation specialist, is testing its own specialized search tool, which will come out in the next two months. “Our tool will help you find new restaurants that reflect what you value—for example, a great wine list, a local gem, top-notch design,” says Victoria Vaynberg, Resy’s chief marketing officer. She says the company considered deploying the function for Valentine’s Day, but “the pursuit of the perfect restaurant for an occasion is one our diners are faced with year-round, and we knew we could be of assistance.”
Cycling through Matchmaker is at the very least a fun Valentine’s Day exercise. I decided I wanted an Italian spot that’s “Hip and Happening.” While I had a few ideas myself—shoutout to Locanda Verde, Lilia, and Carbone—I got prompted to go to Trattoria dell’Arte in Midtown Manhattan, which was booked 85 times today, according to OpenTable. It’s way behind Lavo in East Midtown, also recommended by Matchmaker, which saw 134 bookings today, but still seems to have openings at every time slot.
Neither is where I would want to spend my Valentine’s Day. But I appreciate OpenTable’s help in serving up a restaurant recommendation as well as the option to just book the table and get it over with and save any fighting until we get to dinner.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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