Photo-Illustration: Grub Street

In 2008, then-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was famously musing on his options to fill the Senate seat that would soon be vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden,” he said. “And I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing.” The sentiment, in part, got Blagojevich sent to prison; the same idea has worked remarkably well for New York City restaurateurs for decades.

I haven’t run the numbers lately, but the city is home to something like 100 trillion restaurants (give or take). Yet throughout its history, scene-chasing diners have tended to gravitate toward a rotating group of a dozen or so spots at a time, the places where “everyone” wants to eat. A hundred years ago, that list included a Central Park place called the Casino. Fifty years ago, it was The Four Seasons. Twenty years ago, we had Spice Market. And these days, it’s Torrisi, Coqodaq, and Tatiana, the last of which Gothamist’s Lee Walker Helland recently spent a considerable amount of time trying to infiltrate.

The ways in which this phenomenon plays out in the Resy era have recently been well documented: Restaurants release tables on a reservation service at a certain time. Seconds later, those tables are taken. Often, the insta-bookings are attributed to “bots” that snatch them up more quickly than humans can. But the Resy slots also disappear because no sane restaurateur is going to fill his or her entire dining room with digital bookings six weeks out: Seats need to be held back for VIPs, friends, regulars, and any big-spending whales who might want to stop in.

As Rachel Sugar reported for us last year, a group of predatory services has emerged that offer popular reservations in exchange for money, creating a gray market that caters to — and this is as politely as I can put it — an audience of well-heeled rubes. Right now, it is Monday morning. Every single restaurant in the city has the flexibility, if its managers and hosts and owners so desire, to seat someone for dinner at 7 p.m. this coming Friday. If you think that paying $150 to buy one of those reservations is the only way to get in, you’ve already lost.

The question to address here is not What’s wrong with restaurants? or even Why are reservations so broken? It’s: What’s wrong with diners? As one restaurant-owning friend recently lamented, “New York customers only want to eat at the places where they can’t get in.” Therapists can wrestle with the thinking that causes someone to spend weeks or even months attempting to eat at a restaurant that does not really want their business. I will instead just point this out: The easiest way to eat well in New York is to have better taste than the people who Google “best restaurant NYC” and go to the first result they see or who are all clamoring to get into whatever seven restaurants they saw on TikTok.

Here are some very good places where anyone who wants to could eat this week: Lola’s (Suzanne Cupps’s thoughtful new Flatiron spot), Foul Witch (last year’s impossible table, which has by all accounts not changed at all), Huda (the excellent “new Levantine bistro” in Williamsburg), UnTable (which is not just one of the city’s best new Thai restaurants but one of our favorite new restaurants, period), and Penny (the Claud-adjacent wine-and-seafood bar that, like UnTable, is for walk-ins; alternatively, you can eat at Claud).

They are all hot, some poised to possibly become … hotter. Soon, these will be among the places where “everyone” wants to eat, partly because they think that they can’t.

It’s only impossible to make a dinner reservation at like five restaurants, and even then it’s not actually impossible: People are going to eat at Tatiana tonight — they got in somehow. Maybe they know someone; maybe they started supporting the restaurant when it was new and its success was hardly guaranteed. Maybe they’re just going to show up, as my colleague Zach Schiffman did last spring, to discover they can be seated immediately. There are tables; they tend to go to people whose presence is valued by the restaurant in some way. You can’t fault a place for being popular or taking advantage of that popularity. Tatiana’s chef and owner, Kwame Onwuachi, has this thing and it’s fucking golden. He’s not giving it up for fucking nothing.