San Francisco-based OpenTable.com isn't just successful, it practically has a monopoly on mid-to-high-priced restaurants in this town, from a small neighborhood bistro like Bia's to destinations like Chez Panisse. In fact, looking over the 1,114 restaurants in its Bay Area listings, it's harder to ID places that don't use the online reservation service than restaurants who do.
Unless you start looking for Chinese restaurants.
Search the list for "Asian restaurants" -- there's no "Chinese" grouping in the search form, though "Japanese" and "sushi" exist -- and you'll find two ABC Seafood locations on the Peninsula, plus a couple of Brandy Ho's and Tommy Toy's in the city.
Curious about the disparity between Western and Chinese restaurants online, I contacted Open Table media rep Tiffany Fox, who talked to sales representatives and reported back. The lack of a "Chinese" search term on the site, she explained, has to do with popularity.
"It's really what the restaurants select as their primary cuisine," she explained. "We can't have every critical cuisine. For instance, you don't see a Vietnamese category, though Slanted Door is one of our most-booked restaurants."
Fox then mentioned that Tommy Toy's and Brandy Ho's used OpenTable. "But they're restaurants that cater to non-Chinese diners," I pointed out. "Does OpenTable reach out to Chinese restaurants?" She didn't have that precise information.
"I don't know," she said. "Those are popular restaurants all around. In San Francisco, there are a ton of great Chinese restaurants, but they're not reservation-taking restaurants."
Is that true? I had bilingual reporter Caroline Chen call a number of the more expensive Chinese restaurants to find out whether or not they do take reservations. Ton Kiang and Great Eastern told her she could drop in any time, but Koi Palace and R&G Lounge recommended she call ahead to book a table -- though only by phone.
Only South Sea Seafood Village told Chen it was considering OpenTable, so I called the restaurant back and spoke to Terry Chan, one of the managers. "Every time we have a staff meeting it comes up," Chan told me. "But it's ultimately up to the management." He confirmed that OpenTable had approached the restaurant, and not the other way around.
I told him I'd noticed that very few Chinese restaurants were on the site. "That's one of the reasons we're hesitant," he replied.
I also spoke to the banquet coordinator at Koi Palace about online reservations. "We don't use an online reservation company because for the time being, we're quite busy," she said. What about banquets? "For that, you have to talk to the manager about the menu," she replied. "Face to face is the best."
Is the dearth of Chinese restaurants on OpenTable due to a lack of outreach on the company's part or lack of interest from Chinese-American restaurateurs and diners? Does it have to do with the fact that OpenTable charges significant fees?
It's hard to say, and no one I spoke to wanted to hazard an explanation. My guess is that if just one of San Francisco's top-level Chinese restaurants adopts online reservations and sees business jump, many others will follow. So far, none have even tried.