SOME ways to secure a seat at a restaurant in 2018: Visit the restaurant’s website, visit a third-party website, email, use an app, call, stand in line, hire someone to stand in line, buy tickets from a restaurant, buy scalped tickets at a premium, buy reservations from a website that made reservations before you realised you needed reservations.
This year Erin French decided there would be only one way to make reservations at the Lost Kitchen, her restaurant in her hometown of Freedom, Maine (population 731): pen-to-paper note cards. The Lost Kitchen, in a historic mill across a footbridge and over a waterfall in “the middle of nowhere” (French’s words), is home to one of the most elusive restaurant reservations in America. And French, trying to inject some old-fashioned Maine sensibility into a 21st-century scramble, took the process off the grid. The chef and owner wasn’t trying to be precious. The Lost Kitchen seats 40 to 45 diners, with just one seating per night for nine months of the year. Its menu changes nightly but serves everyone the same thing. “We can care for 45 people an evening really, really well,” says French. “And I can work four days a week, working those 18-hour days, and that’s as much as I can do, and that’s all I can do.”
Soon after the restaurant’s 2014 opening, French received international attention for its convivial dinner-party atmosphere and focus on Maine flavours and ingredients. Reservation requests were immediately steady for such dishes as roasted garlic scape and spinach soup with smoked ricotta, basil sprouts and fried chive blossom.
Then in 2017, after the publication of French’s best-selling cookbook, ‘The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine,’ the reservation situation became overwhelming.
When French opened the phones to take reservations for the season at midnight on April 1, 2017, the calls came pouring in. The voice-mail box held only 40 messages, and it kept filling faster than it could be emptied. People drove to the restaurant – 90 miles from Portland, the nearest city – with loaves of warm bread and apple butter to get reservations on the books. The alarm system started wailing in the basement because it couldn’t call out. The Freedom fire department was called.
At the end of the week, 10,000 phone calls had come in – and those were the people who could get past the busy signals.
This for a restaurant owner who had only recently – and grudgingly – launched a website. French knew she had to come up with a better system, one that was authentic to her. “Everyone thought they had this figured out for me. ‘Oh, just go on OpenTable. Oh, just, you know, do this website.’ You know, this is a system that was created by men who were running these really big restaurants. Do I follow that path, or do I just make my own system?” (The Lost Kitchen’s staff was for years all female; French recently hired a male dishwasher.)
French wanted to make sure the method wouldn’t be chaotic for her staff and would maintain the Lost Kitchen’s peaceful vibe.
When the restaurant announced it would accept reservation requests only on 3×5 note cards postmarked between March 31 and April 10 (giving would-be diners an extra day for Easter), French expected 6,000 to 8,000 requests. The Lost Kitchen received almost 20,000, from all over the world. The letters arrived in waves into the tiny Freedom Post Office, which operated on reduced hours because of Postal Service cutbacks.
“On the first day,” says French, “I walked in the door and Kayla who was at the Post Office was kind of smirking at me.” French filled her car with five bins of mail that day; all the requests were from Maine. The next day, the letters were from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And so on.
Only name and address were required, but guests went much further, creating tiny sketches or watercolors (Kelly Leadbetter, an artist, painted a picture of the building), writing heartfelt notes about the need for the comforting Lost Kitchen experience during a difficult time in a marriage, telling triumphant stories about successful organ transplants.
It took three weeks for the restaurant to draw enough cards from the bins to fill the reservations, and cards were picked by anyone who was around. “It could have been the UPS man if he was in,” says French. “The day that our kids were in, those days a few hot pink ones, things with amphibians and glitter got chosen.”
The night I visited, Boston resident Kris Bruneau, who drew a wreath of utensils and produce, told me she was happy to mail a card. “I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to keep redialing and all that. It was so nice to just go the old-fashioned route,” she said. “It was neat to anticipate and wait for the day of the calls starting to come and see if I was going to get a call, and when the number popped up on my phone, my heart started to race, and I was like, ‘No way.'”
Allie Olivier said she has tried to get a reservation for three years and “never really got to leave a message or connect with somebody.” This year she was on an overnight train in Vietnam when she saw a 207 area code on her cell phone. There was an echo, and they could hardly hear each other. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me? We want the reservation, don’t let it go!” Olivier says she shouted on the train.
There are the haters: French says some people found the reservation system pretentious. “I wasn’t trying to be cool,” she says. “I was just trying to survive.” Plus, French sees her system as a kind of natural selection: “There are certain people who have very short fuses and don’t have much patience. And I don’t think those people would enjoy being here.”
Feeding people at restaurants is an emotional transaction as well as a financial one, so another benefit to the new system is that French gets to connect with her diners long before they arrive. She looks at the postcards when she arrives to start cooking. “I’m thinking about whose dinner I’m making,” she says. She leaves the postcards out for the staff and says, “All right, here’s who we’re feeding tonight. . . . We have a sense of who these people are before they even come in the door.” It’s particularly helpful in a restaurant where it’s tough to be a regular. And after the night is over, the card remains as an artifact from the emotional transaction of dinner the night before.
Even now, after all the cards have been drawn for the season, bins still crowd French’s small office. Letters keep coming, even though the deadline has long passed and instructions have been removed from the website. The 2018 season ends early, in October, so French can work on her next book, “Finding Freedom,” about building the Lost Kitchen. That means hopeful diners have plenty of time to work on their April 1, 2019, note cards. And to remember that all that’s required is a name and address. Plenty of those cards were chosen, too.
“Everyone who sent one of these, it’s like a little piece of hope,” French said as she looked over the cards after a dinner service. “And a little stamp. It’s like letters of hope to Freedom.” – Photos and text by The Washington Post