Pay to Play?

To manage the cost of canceled reservations, high-end restaurants are asking diners to pony up in advance.

Journeyman in Somerville. Photo by RDA/Flickr

Journeyman in Somerville has a pay-in-advance system. Photo by RDA/Flickr

For most of us, the decision to partake in a multicourse tasting menu involves a major investment of time, stomach, and, most of all, financial resources.

And for restaurants, offering such an experience requires a healthy up-front investment in farm-fresh ingredients and staffers to handle reservations. But when diners cancel at the last minute, most restaurants (which operate on whisper-thin margins) lose not just revenue, but also the perishable food they ordered for that evening’s menu.

That’s why some restaurants are now requiring diners to prepurchase tasting-menu tickets, with prices fluctuating with demand (less for weeknights; more for weekends). In November, Somerville’s Journeyman adopted the pay-in-advance system known as Tock (developed by the Chicago restaurant Alinea). Thomas Keller’s Per Se and French Laundry will begin using the system later this year.

Another new proponent of the prepaid system: chef Peter Ungár, who plans to open the 20-seat Tasting Counter in Somerville this February and sell advance tickets (starting at $150) for elaborate nine-course meals via his own proprietary software. The restaurateur says prepayment not only helps manage costs (and allows for more strategic and elaborate menu planning), but also improves diners’ expectations. “When people make an investment like this,” Ungár says, “they are looking forward to it and show up.”