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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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The Head-Empty Pleasure of the No-Reservations Vacation

A spread of Filipino dishes from Kuya Lord’s Bettina Makalintal/Eater

Skip the constant Resy monitoring this time

This post originally appeared in the April 1, 2023, edition of Eater Travel, a biweekly dispatch from Eater’s staff about navigating places where food is the main attraction. Subscribe now.

The last thing I wanted to do while prepping for my recent vacation to Los Angeles was log onto Resy at midnight a few nights in a row to try for a table at Pijja Palace, the Indian sports bar that earned a spot on Eater’s Best New Restaurants list last year. All the planning and packing and cleaning was plenty; plus, I kept getting sidetracked with TikTok scrolling. I made a resolution: I’d have my usual food-centric vacation, but this time, I wouldn’t bother with Resy or OpenTable.

Given the rise of these platforms in New York, I doubt I’m alone in feeling a bit reservationed out. I’ve had it with setting Notify alerts for hot tables, only for them to be gone before I can tap the push alert, and I’m disenchanted with the revolving door of social media darlings — happy for everyone involved, but also okay with missing out right at the start. I feel like the sense of spontaneity is missing from my dining lately.

So, I approached my trip planning as follows. I queued up Eater LA’s Essential 38 list as well its Dining on a Dime column. I also opened Google Maps and clicked around on restaurants, take-out counters, and food trucks in different neighborhoods. I then made a new private list on Google Maps and used it to save all the places that seemed interesting, skipping sit-down places that I suspected needed a reservation. This appeased my planning-oriented sensibilities, but in a way that felt chill: I was giving myself good options, assuring I wouldn’t waste a meal somewhere lackluster, but no hard commitments.

With this approach, I loved the bounty of banchan at Soowon Galbi, and the elusive red cotton flower noodle soup at Amphai Northern Thai Food Club. I got my Filipino fix at Kuya Lord’s and Lasita; gorged on tacos from Sonoratown, Tacos 1986, and La Isla Bonita; and ate my combo plate from the Armenian takeout counter Mini Kabob ferally on the sidewalk. I loved the nasi goreng at Wallflower; the jambon beurre at Maison Matho; the sourdough with honey butter at Lolo Wine Bar; and the loco moco at All Day Baby. Finding that Jon & Vinny’s could take no walk-ins, I ended up with a great fried chicken sandwich at Son of a Gun. (I’ll concede that we did, technically, have one reservation on the calendar — for the old-school Musso & Frank Grill — but my friend made that one, leaving me free from texts from Resy.)

As an anxious traveler, I appreciated the reframing that this approach gave me: My vacation didn’t have to be predetermined and jam-packed with appointments. It allowed plans to change, making meeting up with friends easier and keeping my days flexible. Most importantly, it was nice to just find myself somewhere with a good meal — instead of committing to a place for lunch, we could go for a walk or a drive, keep an eye out for what looked good, and then be pleasantly surprised.

But I still did really want to go Pijja Palace, given all the praise I’d heard. My plan, I decided, was to show up one night right before it opened, as I’d learned from TikTok. Based on the fact that Pijja Palace is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, I only had one night to try. We showed up at 4:54, finding a line of about 15 others, but a little after 5, we snagged two seats at the bar.

My partner and I opted for the malai rigatoni and a side of garlic bread, deciding to not fill up so we still could allow for some open-endedness to our night. Afterwards, we found ourselves playing pinball for hours at Button Mash, missing our opportunity to get sushi at a spot on my map but allowing us to cap the trip off with the arcade-restaurant’s surprisingly satisfying mushroom burger and a side of perfectly crispy fried cauliflower. Now that I’m home, I hope to keep the vacation vibe going: My reservations calendar is blank at the moment, and it feels great.

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