As we forecast, Urbanspoon is piloting an online restaurant reservations system here in Seattle. The popular site already provided tons of information in 90+ cities on how to find a restaurant and whether to eat there. Now, a handful of high-profile Seattle eateries — CanlisDahlia Lounge, La Spiga, Matt’s in the Market, and Rover’s, so far — will let you reserve a table on Urbanspoon as well. Urbanspoon showed available reservations for all four earlier this evening, then gradually removed the links as the time slots passed.

I talked with Eric Tanaka of Tom Douglas Restaurants tonight about why one of the city’s leading restaurants is taking Urbanspoon for a spin. After all, the Dahlia already uses Open Table, which has long been the national giant for online restaurant reservations, with dedicated terminals and software that allows restaurants to track diners’ habits and tastes.

From Tanaka’s view, the services are trying to target different audiences. Urbanspoon is geared toward last-minute diners; the hungry surges in people who shake their iPhones at 4 p.m. and at 6:30 p.m., wondering where to go eat. The Dahlia is already often fully booked through prime-time dining hours, but the Urbanspoon option gives them an easy way to fill in the gaps, drawing in diners who might not otherwise have thought of visiting that night. (As far as I can tell, as the ‘Spoon guys don’t want to say much until they see the beta system in action, the Urbanspoon system only allows same-day reservations. Open Table allows reservations up to a year in advance.) It’s very attractive, the idea of leaving a movie, say, shaking a phone, and seeing not only which restaurants are located near you, and whether you might want to eat there, but which ones can actually accommodate your table for two, and when.

Of course, Open Table already has an application that does some of that. And that’s part of why I’ll be so curious to see what business analysts make of the ’Spoon’s opening foray into this potentially lucrative path. I use Open Table, and I like it, but I’ve always (as others have observed) seen it as a one-note service for diners. It’s the final step in the process (can we get a reservation?) more than a starter (where do we want to eat?)

I may be biased — Urbanspoon’s based in Seattle, though it was recently acquired by IAC, and I’ve spent more time with its team  – but Urbanspoon seems well positioned to be a one-stop shop. While OT recently added reader reviews; they’re in a daunting, undifferentiated lump of a list, as opposed to Urbanspoon’s nicely tiered, vetted presentation that also draws in professional critics and trusted amateurs. And, while Open Table potentially knows lots about you — maybe your birthday, or your food allergies, or your partner’s name — the Spoon can build that up too, has more valuable data to crunch, and has proven itself interested in exploring what it can do with the information it has. Use it enough, and it could track, empirically, what restaurants you like and which ones you don’t, what types of food are your favorites, the places you’re hoping to try, what your friends like, and a lot more. It isn’t hard for me to imagine the company developing ways to recommend reservations at restaurants you would want to visit in a given neighborhood. Or a way to alert you if an opening suddenly comes up at a place that’s on your must-try list. My vote for most-needed feature? Tailor restaurant recommendations depending on who you’re dining with that night, assuming all are ‘Spoon users, teasing out top picks from what they know about where your tastes converge. 

The other big issue in the competition is money. In the beta version, at least, the Dahlia is paying the same $1/head to Urbanspoon as it pays Open Table. It isn’t, though, on the hook for startup costs or monthly fees or a dedicated terminal, assuming the restaurant already has a working iPod or iPhone or computer. But that’s also part of the downside. Since Open Table didn’t want to sync its system with Urbanspoon, Tanaka said, (no surprise there) the restaurant needs to hand-enter its Urbanspoon reservations  into its Open Table system. Ouch.

“We’ll see how it goes for us,” Tanaka said, and the Urbanspoon folks will see how it goes for them. But he’s interested in seeing how the project plays out. “Technology, it’s crazy!” For now, five restaurants is the barest blip on the online reservations business model. But I’ll be waiting to see if either group winds up eating the other’s lunch.

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