If you haven’t been hanging out in downtown Robbinsdale on a Saturday night, here’s how things have typically been going. Sixty or a 100 people line up outside Travail, the avant-garde molecular gastronomy restaurant/great foodie party palace, starting at 3 or 4 p.m. Then, when the Travail crew unlocks the doors everyone floods in, taking every seat in the 48-seat dining room, at the bar, and at the rear small-plates area the Travail crew calls The Rookery. If you’re at the end of this line you might walk in to the restaurant at 5:05 p.m. and be told you cannot be accomodated until 9:30 or 10 p.m. Is that annoying? Is that stupid? The folks who own Travail think so, and so starting next Wednesday they will do the one thing they have never done: Take reservations. But not any reservations. Ticketed reservations.
Here’s the deal. From this point forward, 75 percent of all Travail seats will be filled by selling advance tickets. The remaining 25 percent will be held for walk-ins (The Rookery will remain entirely walk-in). They will typically release three months at a time, except for the first batch of tickets, which will be released next Wednesday, and will cover all available evenings in April. Then, sometime in March, the tickets will be released for May, and June. To find out the exact release time you will need to get on their newsletter, or watch their new website, and Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Tickets will have the same surge- or variable-pricing that restaurants such as Alinea use, so tickets will be cheaper on low-demand days (Wednesdays) and at low-demand times (very early and very late) and will be more expensive on high demand days and times (prime time Friday and Saturday). Now you will pay $50 for the signature Travail multi-course extravaganza if you have it on Wednesday at 5, and $95 for that same meal on Saturday at 7:45 p.m. (The walk-in prices will be $55 per person on Wednesday and Thursday, and $75 on Friday and Saturday.) There will be a large service charge on top of every ticket price, including both tax and an 18 percent tip. (Service compris comes to Robbinsdale!) Alcohol sales will happen in real time with your meal. And if there’s a snowstorm and you don’t want to go or your sitter cancels you can pass your tickets on to someone else or eat the cost, just like if you had purchased a concert ticket.
Why are they doing this? Mainly to try to improve the customers’ experience, Travail co-owner and co-chef James Winberg says. “On a Saturday, by the time the line even gets in the door the restaurant is full. It’s stupid. The first thing you’re saying to a bunch of people is: No. Other people are sitting at the bar for four or five hours and getting grumpier and grumpier because they’ve waited so long, so by the time they sit down you’ve doomed their experience. We need to try something new.”
Speaking of something new, Travail also lost the tasting menu for two, which was served on single plates to share plates. Winberg tells me that the reason they did this was because at the old Travail they didn’t have enough actual plates to go around, or counter-space on which to put them.
"When you’re in the middle of it you’re not thinking: Oh, you know, maybe a guy from Dallas and a guy from New York who just met at a conference and are coming to eat some food might find this awkward. We were so ingrained in how we used to do it, it took us a while to realize we don’t have to do it like that anymore. This space is only a year old. We’re really only learning now how to use it well.”
Will Minnesota tolerate tickets and surge-pricing for the fine dining Travail experience? Something tells me that anyone who was willing to stand outside for two hours in the cold will be just as willing to buy a ticket for a birthday two months out. But this much is sure: The most experimental restaurant in Minnesota just got a whole lot more experimental, and every restaurant owner in town will be watching for the results.
See for yourself: travailkitchen.com