Why the Hottest Restaurants in America Don’t Serve Lunch

Yesterday, we at OpenTable released our annual list of the 100 Best Restaurants for Foodies, based on more than five million restaurant reviews submitted by verified OpenTable diners. Looking at the restaurants featured, we saw a few similarities: a commitment to local, sustainable seafood; craft cocktail lists; and wood-fired cooking, to name a few.

We also noticed that many of these restaurants — beloved by adventurous diners everywhere — don’t serve lunch.

To find out why, we turned to two acclaimed chefs whose restaurants made the list, Michael Voltaggio of ink. in Los Angeles and Amanda Cohen of New York City’s Dirt Candy. Here are five reasons they’re not catering to the weekday business crowd.

Turn times are too long.

When people dine out at ink. and Dirt Candy, it’s often for a special occasion. Dinner is their activity for the evening, which means they’re prepared to stay for hours to enjoy it. Lunch, on the other hand, is all about grabbing a quick bite and getting back to the office.

“Most people that are eating lunch just have an hour,” says Michael. “Our turn time in the restaurant  is about two hours, so right there we already take ourselves out of that. We don’t want to try and rush somebody through the experience; we’d rather people come and sit down and not be thinking about work when they’re having dinner.”

Prep space is limited.

Amanda’s original Dirt Candy location was so small that most of the dinner prep actually happened in the dining room, leaving zero extra space for a lunch service. “We would have been prepping stuff next to people eating,” she says.

Now that she’s moved to a larger location, she just opened the restaurant for brunch for the first time this past weekend. She’s excited about it, but even in the bigger space it’s a learning curve: “It’s a lot of people at once in the kitchen.”

Similarly, Michael doesn’t have a huge kitchen at ink., so his team needs all of the space to prep for dinner (and the dinner menu takes a lot of prep).

Chefs don’t like to wake up early.

Since most chefs at hot, in-demand restaurants go to bed around 2 a.m., they are generally not excited about waking up at 7 a.m. to get ready for lunch service. Same goes for brunch on the weekends.

“There’s a shortage of great restaurants that offer brunch, because you are recovering from Saturday night from Friday night, so it’s hard to turn the restaurant and get ready for that,” says Michael. 

When Amanda introduced brunch, she increased her staff to account for the new service. “We’re so used to only having to work at night that putting a whole new crew in during the day has been a challenge,” she says. “We’re still figuring it out.” 

Executing an entirely different menu is challenging.

Upscale dinner menus generally don’t lend themselves to lunch service, so serving lunch or brunch means developing an entirely new menu. That process was fun for Amanda, who worked with her team to find new, more casual ways to showcase vegetables in sandwiches and egg dishes. Still, it’s undeniably a big project to execute the new dishes in the same space and learn the “ballerina movements” of the kitchen.

Michael says if he were to take on a new brunch or lunch menu, he’d never sleep. “I would come in and nerd out on Eggs Benedict and sit there and think to myself, how can I make the most perfect Eggs Benedict? How can I make the most perfect French toast? I don’t think I have the mental space to be able to do it.”

Michael says he would consider opening ink. for lunch on the weekends if he could offer them the same experience he does for dinner and simply extend service hours. That way, he wouldn’t have to reset the entire line with food for that meal period. He could also welcome out-of-town visitors who weren’t able to get a dinner reservation and who didn’t have any time constraints.

“If you get an opportunity to say yes to somebody, I think that’s always better than saying no. If people would buy into it, I think people could start considering actually having their dinner plans become their lunch plans on weekends, and maybe giving the restaurants a couple more services to squeeze in.”

Fast-casual concepts offer more opportunity than lunch service.

In some cities real estate is so expensive that restaurants have to serve lunch to be profitable, even with a high check average for dinner.

“You really do have to have a high enough check average, and even then it’s barely enough,” says Amanda. “That is one of the reasons we also started thinking about doing brunch. We pay rent, and the more times I can operate and the more chances I have at pulling in some revenue, the more likely I am to succeed.”

Michael sees fast-casual concepts as a way for chefs to enter the lunch space, since the volume is higher and the food and experience are better suited to what people are looking for. He owns ink.sack, a sandwich shop, in the 686-square-foot space three doors down from ink. He’s excited about what Danny Meyer is doing with Shake Shack and what Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are doing with Loco’l, bringing better quality food to more people.

“Those, to me, are better alternatives for chefs to be cooking lunch, and it’s more in theme with what people are eating for lunch — as opposed to trying to get people into your restaurant, and trying to get them in and get them out as fast as you possibly can, and then maybe missing an opportunity to represent the experience that you’re trying to offer the best that you possibly can.”