AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If you have a taste for fancy restaurants, you may need a ticket to dine. Reservations are going through something of a revolution. Over the next few months, around 15 of the trendiest restaurants in the world are starting to shift to a ticketing system. Reporter Jeff Tyler begins this story at one of the most exclusive bistros in Los Angeles.
JEFF TYLER, BYLINE: Trois Mec is casual.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Bonsoir.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: Bonsoir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Hi, how are you doing tonight?
TYLER: It's tiny - only 28 seats - and it's pricey, at around $100 per head. To give you a flavor, on a recent menu, the first course was carrots, hay, cultured coconut milk, white chocolate emulsion and ramps, a kind of onion. Nothing here is ordinary, and that includes how you pay.
LUDOVIC LEFEBVRE: You pay before for your meal - tax, food and surcharge.
TYLER: Chef Ludovic Lefebvre co-owns Trois Mec. If you want to eat here, you have to buy a ticket in advance, and that ain't easy. Every other Friday, tickets are sold online at eight a.m., and don't be late.
LEFEBVRE: Because it's sold out in 30 seconds all the time. So fast, in one minute it's sold out for two weeks.
TYLER: The ticket trend started in Chicago at a restaurant called Next, which specializes in theme menus. Currently, it's modern Chinese.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: On the center block, you'll find dehydrated, glazed beef rib-eye chips and wok-seared, chili-salted broccoli florets. Beef and broccoli as you've never seen before.
TYLER: The restaurant's co-owner Nick Kokonas was the first restaurateur to sell tickets, and Next even sells season tickets.
NICK KOKONAS: Which is a bit like a subscription to a theater group or the opera. It entitles a ticketholder to come to each of our menus. We have three menus a year.
TYLER: Now, if you're the person paying for the meal, the ticket system can be really inconvenient. Let's consider Trois Mec in Los Angeles.
JONATHAN GOLD: I would say that I've tried to get a table at Trois Mec 13 or 14 times, and I've only succeeded maybe four or five.
TYLER: Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times.
GOLD: It reminds me of lot of waking up at six in the morning staying and standing in line for tickets to a Led Zeppelin show or something.
TYLER: The idea of the ticket makes the experience more like an event, says Chef Lefebvre, with a similar refund policy.
LEFEBVRE: You buy your ticket before. If you don't show up, you lose your money. And Trois Mec's the same thing. If you don't come, we keep the money.
TYLER: He takes that hard line to account for a paradox that bedevils his industry. Even though it's near impossible to reserve a table, once people get the reservation, they often don't show up. To see what I mean, let's drop in on a San Francisco restaurant called Coi. Even though Coi has been named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, chef and owner Daniel Patterson says...
DANIEL PATTERSON: We have a terrible problem with last-minute cancellations and no-shows. Within a week, we turn over about 30 to 40 percent of our reservations. So people will make a reservation months in advance and then cancel it four days before. The problem is we're a special occasion restaurant, so we don't get a lot of last minute demands. So those tables will largely go empty.
TYLER: To fix that, Coi began selling tickets in late July. With the money Patterson saves on no-shows, he's now able to offer discounts for diners who take early or late seatings. Tickets also have some drawbacks. You have to pay for dinner in advance. Older diners may feel at a disadvantage using an Internet system. And the tickets can be re-sold. Back in Los Angeles, I spoke with some guys waiting for their table outside Trois Mec. Thirty-two-year-old Don Bui bought tickets for the whole group.
DON BUI: I actually thought of selling the tickets.
TYLER: How much would you have tried to sell them for?
BUI: I would imagine they'd go for at least double in L.A.
TYLER: In some cases, scalpers have tried to sell the hottest restaurant critics for as much as $2,000 apiece. But the ticket system isn't just for the most exclusive eateries. The idea is spreading to other small businesses - barbershops and nail salons and even non-emergency medical centers - any business that has problems with people not showing up for their reservations. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tyler in Los Angeles.