It’s the enduring dilemma for a modern urban world—how to get a reservation at the hot restaurant of your choice for 8 p.m. Saturday night?

Apparently it’s a dilemma that can be solved for $35.

A mini-furor has erupted over the New York company that offers reservations at hot restaurants for a fee of $35 per table, or an annual membership of $450. PrimeTime Tables is run by Pascal Riffaud, a former concierge who leverages connections to top restaurants for a fee, and has been in operation for over a year. A post on Urban Daddy threw light on the somewhat shady situation, while a series of posts on the food blog Eater brought greater attention and concern over the ethics of Riffaud’s enterprise. Reader response is mixed—some are bothered, others have no problem with the system (and are keen to sign up).

The guys at Eater do a great job of summing up the situation:

What we can tell you is that this site is not more legitimate than the ticket scalpers who cruise outside Yankee Stadium during the playoffs. In fact, browsing through PrimeTime’s listings is unsettlingly similar to the experience of getting a little too close to cheating on a spouse. It is as if you are about to do something you’ll likely regret—and the one thing you are absolutely certain of is that you can never, ever, be seen doing it in public. On the other hand, they’ve got an impressive stable of reservations to offer.

The New York Times jumped into the fray last week, with an article (registration required) that includes negative feedback from the industry. Restaurateur Danny Meyer is quoted as saying the service “undermines the beauty of the dialogue that takes place when a restaurant and its patrons have a healthy, dynamic relationship” (one can only assume Mr. Meyer hasn’t tried to make an 8 p.m. Saturday reservation at any of his own restaurants lately—nothing very beautiful about that dialogue, if you ask me). Even Waiter Rant cries foul on that one. “Gimme a break. I think Danny’s been spending too much time reading his own book.”

While New York debates the ethics of scalping restaurant tables online, out on the West Coast it’s low-tech, traditional, and slightly more affordable. Restaurant critic Michael Bauer, on his San Francisco Chronicle blog, Between Meals, asks whether the practice of slipping the host a twenty to get a table is back in play.

Which answers another eternal question—the difference between New York and San Francisco? Fifteen dollars, apparently.

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