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The Cachet of Routine
Yes, it’s cool to frequent the same restaurant over and over. Operators weigh in on points, house accounts, and the spiritual role of the regular.
Throughout October, we’ll be posting reported features, essays, and lists around our monthly theme: The Regular.
At a party recently, I found myself standing with two couples who live on the Upper West Side. One couple had moved to the neighborhood just a few days earlier, and they were asking the other couple about their favorite local places to eat. The been-around-the-block husband unlocked his phone, pulling up a list of restaurants he’d been to or wanted to try, which prompted the new-to-the-neighborhood husband to unlock his own phone and start typing.
This kind of restaurant list is commonplace these days — a combination wish list and to-do list in which there’s a mix of places you’ve seen on TikTok, read about in the the New York Times, and heard about from a friend of a friend. It’s become a kind of cultural currency to check spots off, and to show people where you’ve been by posting about it on social media. This modern reality encourages people to always chase the hottest, newest place, which could have the effect of discouraging people from returning to the restaurants they love most.
Yet going back to a restaurant over and over again—becoming a regular—leads to its own sort of social cachet. In the old-fashioned sense, a regular might mean someone who frequents a place often enough to score a prime table at the last minute, or who knows all of the servers by name, or who sits down at the bar only to be confronted with a, “The usual?” But as the industry has expanded, so too has the definition of a regular. In today’s world, does the regular as we know it even exist?
Turtel estimates that each month, around 20 percent of checks are paid on Luger Cards. Not all regulars have Luger cards, and some who do might still choose to pay in cash. But, according to Turtel, that 20 percent figure offers a window into the role that regulars play at Luger’s.
The customer base at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, New York reflects the current climate. “We're kind of split between diehard regulars and tourists,” says Daniel Turtel, Vice President of Luger’s, whose family purchased the restaurant, which opened in 1887, in 1950. “We've got guys that've been coming back forever. They have standing reservations every month, every three months, every year.” And then there are newcomers—food bloggers or families in town for graduations—who order the porterhouse, post a photo, and don’t come back.
Luger’s is famously cash only, but some regulars opt to open a house account. When someone wants to pay using their house account, they charge their Peter Luger Card and are billed later on. Turtel estimates that each month, around 20 percent of checks are paid on Luger Cards. Not all regulars have Luger cards, and some who do might still choose to pay in cash. But, according to Turtel, that 20 percent figure offers a window into the role that regulars play at Luger’s. “At least one out of every five people that's coming in the door is invested enough that they actually have their own house account,” he says. “Regulars are a gigantic part of who we are.”
For Zoee Wong, Operations and Brand Manager at two Michelin star Birdsong and their fast casual fried chicken concept, Birdbox, in San Francisco, the importance of regulars goes beyond business itself. “As operators, we care so much about creating these experiences for people,” she says. “I think having regulars is a reminder of the humanity of the work that we do.”
Wong believes in the concept of a restaurant regular because she herself loves being a regular, even if that’s just at a coffee shop, making conversation with the barista who’s always there, or in the grocery store checkout line, chatting with the person ringing you up. “There's a kind of warmth and familiarity,” she says. “I think those kinds of casual ties are so important to feeling grounded in a place.”
RJ Melman, President of the Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You—which was founded by his father, Rich Melman, in 1971—similarly sees building relationships as foundational to building regulars. “It's really a game of making a friend one table at a time,” he says. “That is still the most effective way to build loyalty and regulars in my opinion.”
Lettuce has long understood the importance of loyalty. Their Frequent Diner Club, in which members can redeem points for discounts and other perks at more than 120 restaurants across the country, is more than 30 years old. But to Melman, there’s a difference between a loyal guest and a regular. “A regular is someone that is recognized at the restaurant, knows the team, whereas a loyalty member might be a great customer of the brand overall, but may not be a regular at a restaurant,” he says. “Regular is a much more local term to me.”
In most restaurants, regulars come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There are visiting regulars who come in every time they’re in town, and annual regulars who come in just for their birthday, and even takeout regulars who never actually step foot inside of the space. No matter the cadence, it’s hospitality that Chicago chef Jason Vincent, who co-owns Giant, Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, and Pizza Matta, points to as the crux of what makes any person come back.
But to Melman, there’s a difference between a loyal guest and a regular. “A regular is someone that is recognized at the restaurant, knows the team, whereas a loyalty member might be a great customer of the brand overall, but may not be a regular at a restaurant,” he says. “Regular is a much more local term to me.”
“I worked at Commander's Palace and you hear stories about the lengths they went to for hospitality, or what hospitality was 20 years ago, when it was kiss their ass in the dining room, scream at people in the kitchen, and pay people nothing,” Vincent says. “That’s what led us to open Giant and kind of reframe hospitality into actually being nice to people and being nice to the staff.”
Hollis Silverman, founder of Eastern Point Collective which owns three spots in Washington D.C.—The Duck & The Peach, La Collina, and The Wells—takes a similar stance. “Guests and regulars are important, but they are not as important as the team we're on,” she says. “That's where it starts.”
At Vincent’s restaurants, there are no VIPs. Everyone is treated with the same level of respect and offered the same level of service. This philosophy has created places that people can trust, which Vincent cites as another crucial aspect in encouraging guests to return. “We have your credit card number, we have your address, we have your phone number. In a big scary world like it is, you want to trust the place that has that information about you.”
Sometimes, that trust goes way deeper than technology. Colin Wyatt, executive chef at Twelve in Portland, Maine, used to work at Daniel in New York City. He tells a story about a guest who would come in every Friday and order a roast chicken and French fries. “We didn't have that on the menu anywhere, but when they came in, we made sure to have those things available,” Wyatt says.
From working at places like Daniel and Eleven Madison Park, Wyatt has learned that so much of cultivating regulars is creating connections. “I think the simplest thing is recognition. Just saying hello. Knowing who it is that comes in,” he says. “Small things like just knowing their preference in water, knowing that they may love a certain dish. Just those little touches I think is what lets them know that we acknowledge that they've been here multiple times.”
As Wyatt looks back on Twelve’s first year, he acknowledges the importance of regulars to his restaurant, which happens to operate in an area that’s largely seasonal. “When things drop off in wintertime or get a little bit slower in the fall, having 10 or 12 guests a week that are considered to be regulars, that makes a difference.”
In D.C., Silverman takes a step back, looking at the restaurant’s role in a regular’s daily life. “You’re a part of their routine. You're a part of their village,” she says. People are seeking out connections now more than ever, and restaurants are an easy place to find them. It can, at times, feel almost impossible to become a regular in this age of restaurant overload. But restaurants themselves don’t just pride themselves on their regulars — they’re hungry for more.