Grant Achatz, the highly praised chef of Alinea in Chicago, has asked himself the same question. Now, he says that with his next restaurant (called, naturally, Next Restaurant), that’s just what he’ll do.
Anyone wishing to eat at Next after its scheduled opening in the fall will pay in advance on its Web site. Like airlines, Next will offer cheaper tickets for off-peak hours. A table at 9:30 on a Tuesday night, say, would cost less than one for Saturday at 8. Ticket prices will also vary based on the menu, but will run from $45 to $75 for a five- or six-course meal, according to the site, nextrestaurant.com. (Wine and beverage pairings, bought with the ticket, will begin at $25.)
The menu will change four times a year, with each new edition featuring the cuisine of a particular place and time. When the restaurant opens, Mr. Achatz said, the theme will be Paris in 1912, with painstakingly researched evocations of Escoffier-era cuisine. Three months later, the kitchen will turn out a fresh set of recipes — evoking, say, postwar Sicily, or Hong Kong 25 years from now, with modern techniques employed to imagine the future of Chinese cuisine.
Subscriptions to a year’s worth of space-and-time coordinates will also be sold.
“We now pay three or four reservationists all day long to basically tell people they can’t come to the restaurant,” Mr. Achatz said of Alinea. With Next, he intends to strip away those and other hidden costs of dining out. “It allows us to give an experience that is actually great value,” he said. “That’s the theory.”
But the plan would also have value for Mr. Achatz and his main partner in Next and Alinea, Nick Kokonas. By law, restaurants may distribute tips only to those employees who work in service. But the service charge included in the ticket price “gives him control over the money,” said Bill Guilfoyle, an associate professor of business management at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “He can give it to whomever he sees fit.”
Mr. Achatz could pay cooks more than members of the wait staff, a reversal of the usual pecking order that could allow him to recruit shining kitchen talent. Mr. Guilfoyle also said that the 150 or so tickets that Next sells each night could mean a cash-flow bonanza like the one Starbucks enjoys on its cash cards. Starbucks had a multimillion-dollar “float of products the customers had paid for but hadn’t collected yet,” he said. “If Achatz is smart, he’ll invest this in the futures market.”
Much of the work of taking reservations has already migrated to the Internet. Customers who book seatings at unpopular hours on Open Table earn points that add up to cash vouchers accepted by all restaurants that the service represents.
The restaurateur David Chang has an online reservation system at his Momofuku Ko, although checks are settled at meal’s end. He said that the savings in payroll and staff time have been tremendous. He had considered off-peak pricing, too, but was afraid it would turn off customers. “It’s going to irritate very many people,” Mr. Chang said of the ticket plan. “But I think it’s liberating, and a lot of restaurants are going to follow suit.”
But Mr. Achatz, who is also working on concurrent plans to open a bar called Aviary, hopes that people won’t be irritated once they enjoy the convenience of a meal with no decisions to be made and no check to be signed. “There’s no transactions in the restaurant at all,” he said. “So you can literally come in, sit down, start your experience, and when you’re done, you just get up and leave.”
By PETE WELLS