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5 Factors That Determine a 🔥 Spot
What makes a hot spot? According to restaurant insiders, a strong point of view keeps diners coming back for more...
We all know how hard it is to get a reservation these days. We feel it, and we’ve read about it. Of course, this isn’t true for all great restaurants. There are still neighborhood standbys and tried-and-true spots that are easy to walk into (or snag a day-of reservation at) because they’re out of the limelight, and maybe never even craved the limelight in the first place. And yet the game to get into hot spots — i.e., Horses in LA, Carbone in New York and Miami, San Ho Won in San Francisco, to a name a prototypical few — is more competitive than ever.
Why do we yearn for the toughest tables in town? Well, exclusivity has always had its allure — just ask Charlie Chaplin — and in today’s post pandemic world, chic and vibe-y restaurants are akin to the new velvet roped clubs, or even the new catwalks. There’s also the perceived accessibility factor. Not only is going out for dinner a form of entertainment that one can do seven days a week should one so choose, but restaurant reservations are ostensibly democratic (there’s no snobby doorman superficially sizing you up before mercilessly shunning you); all one must do is buckle down and snag that resy before someone else with a smartphone does. And, speaking of smartphones, TikTok and Instagram now allow us to brag about our restaurant access to people far beyond our friend group, and in real time no less.
Diners at Dhamaka, for example, are not simply excited to eat the fiery Bengali food and be in the vibrant dining room but to be “part of this new conversation that we’re having in the city,” he says. When you dine at an Unapologetic Foods restaurant, you’re entering the uncharted territory of Indian cuisine. You’re along for the ride.
All this ratchets up demand like never before, thus rendering said hot spots and others of their zeitgeist-y ilk, well, hotter and hotter. But how does a new restaurant court such demand? Is it all just left up to fate or are there a set of rules in place beyond the hype-building trinity of good press, social media trending, and excellent word of mouth?
A bit of both, it turns out. Artists argue that the muse comes to the “prepared mind” — that is, the artist who works patiently everyday, thus putting the optimum conditions in place should inspiration — that fickle thing — choose to strike. The same could be said for restaurants and the restaurateurs behind them. There is no exact formula to guarantee an operator catch lightening in a bottle, but by checking as many of the five boxes below as possible, a spot might well set itself up for success, and maybe even attain that elusive hotness we all want a piece of.
1. Have a strong take
Successful restauranteurs don’t waffle over what they want their place to feel like. They possess strong takes and always sweat the details. Balthazar is a French bistro par excellence, right in the middle of Soho — which is why it’s been in the spotlight for some 25 years. Carbone’s decade plus run? Sure, the celebs help (more on that later), but it’s the place’s definitive take on the elevated red sauce joint — from the rigatoni to the ambiance — that’s made it a destination for over a decade.
Still, takes can go deeper than cuisine and decor. As Roni Mazumdar, the CEO of Unapologetic Foods — whose New York restaurants Dhamaka, Semma, and Masalawala & Sons are hyper-popular — puts it: eating at his restaurants has “become sort of a social currency, where being there means something.” Diners at Dhamaka, for example, are not simply excited to eat the fiery Bengali food and be in the vibrant dining room but to be “part of this new conversation that we’re having in the city,” he says. When you dine at an Unapologetic Foods restaurant, you’re entering the uncharted territory of Indian cuisine; you’re along for the ride.
2. Belong to an already hot restaurant group
Sure, this is a chicken-egg thing, but we can’t ignore how helpful it is for a new restaurant to be part of an existing restaurant group — see Torrisi or virtually anything Keith McNally touches. When the new restaurant is the sister restaurant of an already successful spot, the hype builds itself. Take Saffy’s, the Middle Eastern restaurant that Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis opened this past summer in Los Angeles. Menashe and Gergis already had two enduring hot spots under their belt with Bestia and Bavel. Their names carry enough weight in the city that they didn’t have to hit diners over the head with pre-opening buzz. Instead, they launched Saffy’s to peoples’ surprise, and it swiftly became one of the toughest reservations in town. Mazumdar and his team take the same approach. When they open a new restaurant, they don’t even host friends & family (the commonly practiced preview dinner, wherein friends of the restaurant come to eat for free in the days leading up to the opening). “We just open one fine day, so there’s a certain curiosity,” he says.
“Not every restaurant has that luxury,” says Tessa Naso, a communications and marketing consultant who works with Bavel, Bestia, and Saffy’s, in addition to other bona fide hot spots like Horses. Another one of her clients is De La Nonna, a popular pizzeria in the Arts District, run by chef Patrick Costa and Jose Cordon. Before they opened their brick-and-mortar, the duo ran De La Nonna as a pop-up to build interest among Angelenos over time. “For people who are new in the city and trying to make a name for themselves, it’s really important to have a longer-term strategy,” she says.
3. Serve the celebs (even the bad ones)!
As stated, press is a surefire way to court hype, and celebs guarantee ink. And while Page Six might not be as relevant as it once was, there’s still no denying the fact that we want to eat where the stars eat — the world’s a stage and all that. Even, for that matter, where the bad celebs eat. As reality TV casting directors say, always cast the most irritating person for your show. Consider how much press McNally garnered by banning James Corbin from Balthazar last fall.
Positives help, too, especially from credible sources. Like when we see Malala advocating for the malai rigatoni at Pijja Palace, we know that the hype is real. Or at least, we’re even hungrier to try it for ourselves. These days, it’s important to pay attention to the gamut of tastemakers beyond household names. From TikTokers with massive followings to someone like, say, Alison Roman, influence does a lot to keep diners lusting after your reservation book. Followers gonna follow.
4. Don’t forget the vibe
Vibes are like porn: you know them when you see them. Or, in the case of restaurants, feel them. A genuine hot spot has a certain vitality to it. It’s packed, yes, but it also feels good to be there. Naso remembers the first time she sat down with Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian, the chef-owners of Horses, in the Sunset Boulevard restaurant that would soon become the hottest of LA hot spots. “They were talking about the history of the space and the art they were going to put on the walls and the types of people that they wanted to dine at the restaurant,” she says. “I was like, ‘this is going to be a hit.’ There’s a spark, there’s an energy in the space, and there’s a point of view and a vision that you can’t replicate.”
Mazumdar agrees. “It starts with a core belief about what you are putting out there and your conviction towards that,” he says. “A dish can attract you, but it doesn’t always resonate on a deeper, more primal level.”
5. Be consistent but also evolve
Here’s where restaurants — and hospitality institutions in general — have it the hardest. Whereas a novel, a film, or a painting might strike gold, they’re all finished products. A restaurant, in contrast, is akin to a living thing, one that must deliver night after night, year after year, and — if it’s lucky — decade upon decade. The ultimate goal of any restaurant operator is to have staying power. For a hot spot, the stakes of achieving it are even higher: it’s worse to fall from grace than remain somewhere in the middle of the road. So what’s the recipe for maintaining desirability? It’s consistency, above all, but also being able to mature alongside culture. An elite restaurant treats its regulars well, doesn’t shy away from evolving with the times, and, most crucially, stays great.
Mazumdar doesn’t even think of his restaurants as hot spots. “I just think they’re brands that people believe in,” he says. “The most important factor of having a philosophy is not wavering from it.”
The baseline for a dynamite restaurant is that it serves food that tastes good. But for us diners to experience an emotional connection with a restaurant, we have to understand what that restaurant stands for. Whether that’s using food as a vehicle for much richer conversations, as Unapologetic Foods aims to do, or creating a place that’s sexy, delicious, and feels intrinsic to the city’s history and culture, such as Horses, is up to the restaurateur. “There are so few places where you walk in, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is hitting on all cylinders,’’ Naso says. “It’s almost unexplainable, but you know when you’re experiencing it.”
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Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based writer with bylines in Bon Appétit, Eater, Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Resy, and more. Find her on Instagram and Twitter at @emilyjwils.