NEW YORK -- A hotshot restaurateur's playful menu and populist booking policy have cooked up an online obsession for Manhattan food freaks.
David Chang's latest restaurant, Momofuku Ko
, opened in March with an egalitarian concept: There's a strict no-VIP policy, and the 12 seats in the tiny eatery can be booked only through an online reservation system.
"We wanted to try something different," says Chang. "We didn't want to make it for the elite."
But Momofuku Ko's online system has made trying to get a seat at the restaurant a frenzied morning ritual for thousands of obsessive fans. Hopeful diners log on to the restaurant's website each day when the system opens at 10 a.m. They see a series of time slots for that evening's seatings, with green check marks and red x's. If they click fast, they might get a reservation. More likely, they'll get a message reading: "Sorry, someone just grabbed that spot." After about two seconds, that day's reservations are gone.
"You have a combination of a white-hot chef opening a new restaurant with very few seats, and a reservation system that no one has tried before," says Ben Leventhal, editor-in-chief of restaurant blog Eater. "It created a lot of excitement."
New York is famous for its trendy restaurant scene and the bragging rights that accompany a meal at the latest, greatest eatery. Momofuku Ko's simple booking system short-circuits the common methods used to secure a seat at Manhattan's A-list restaurants -- waiting lists, sweet spots for celebs and good old-fashioned grease for the maitre d's palm. As maddening as it is egalitarian, Momofuku Ko's system appears to be the only one of its kind.
With its modest décor and eight-course tasting menu priced at $100, the East Village restaurant might seem an unlikely fixation for New York foodies, who have thousands of fabulous dining options. But Chang, 31, has already won two James Beard awards -- the restaurant equivalent of an Oscar -- and his unique Asian cuisine has drawn near-universal praise since his first two restaurants, Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam, opened in 2004 and 2006.
Momofuku Ko's upscale twist on comfort food features creative dishes like snail-and-ricotta lasagna. The concepts are often so playful that one wonders if Chang isn't making fun: The panna cotta is made from "cereal milk." Yes, that's milk that's been steeped overnight in corn flakes.
Whisk it all together, and you've got a flawless frittata of fixation: When Chang recently offered a reservation at a charity auction, the winner bid $2,870
Chang's so hot that would-be diners tried to hack the system before Momofuku Ko opened. Commenters on Eater began guessing at likely URL names and found the restaurant's website while it was still in development.
Soon, food blogs and forums started to fill with ideas on how to beat the system. Some realized the odds were better on Sundays, when fewer people logged on. Others figured that cancellations were entered into the system at random times, and began obsessively checking all day long. Others realized the site's clock changes by a few seconds each day, and reset their own clocks daily. Of course, as each strategy was shared online, it lost effectiveness, and nabbing a reservation got even more difficult.
"In the first two weeks, if you logged in exactly at 10 a.m., and were quick enough, you were pretty sure to get a reservation," says Steven A. Shaw, executive director of The eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters
, an online portal for restaurant industry professionals. "Now, it's virtually impossible to get in."
As the reservations game fueled the hype, enthusiasm turned to frustration. Critics at The New York Times
, The Wall Street Journal
, The Boston Globe
and the Los Angeles Times
all published rants about the hardships of getting a reservation.
Then came the Craigslist ads. "Hire my services for $40, and I will get you seats for 1, 2 or 4 at Momofuku Ko," read one. Food blogs went crazy with speculation that someone had created an automated bot to beat the system.
But mercenary reservation bookers work manually, and for one customer at a time. They have aspiring diners send them their login info (after they've already entered their credit card information into the system), and then secure a reservation on their behalf.
If this sounds like a massive waste of time, Chang is the first to agree. "I can't imagine why people would spend the time to do this," he says. "It's certainly the most over-hyped restaurant I've seen in a long time."
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