5 p.m. Is the New 8 p.m. at New York Restaurants — and I Couldn’t Be Happier
Last Thursday evening, I arrived for my dinner reservation at Sofreh, a small Brooklyn restaurant serving excellent and authentic Iranian food on the ground floor of a Prospect Heights brownstone. Since opening in 2018, it has become both a critical darling and a neighborhood favorite, making getting a reservation there all but impossible. So how did I get a table?
I was able to tuck into a two-top with my friend because it was only 5:30 p.m., the very beginning of dinner service.
Although dining out before 7 p.m. has long been considered family hour and/or the early bird special that senior citizens supposedly prefer, the restaurant wasn’t filled with children and grandparents, and it definitely wasn’t empty. To the contrary, Sofreh was about three-quarters full, with a manageable buzz that still allowed for easy conversation. By the time we left at 7:30 p.m., the restaurant was packed and loud, and I was thrilled to walk out into the cool night air and be home before dark.
When I went online to make the reservation weeks earlier, all of the slots between 7 and 9 p.m. were booked solid, but 5 or 5:30 p.m. had availability on several nights. I didn’t think twice about it, and when I asked my friend to join me at such an early hour, she also didn’t hesitate to say yes.
A few years ago, both of us would’ve joked about dining with all the old folks or being condemned to screaming children. Yet now, 5 or 5:30 p.m. is my preferred time to dine — and it’s not because I now have kids of my own and recently turned 40. And I’m not alone. Many New Yorkers are booking up the early dinner hours, giving the prime 8 p.m. slot some serious competition.
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According to data pulled from Resy, reservations across New York City made at 5:30 p.m. have jumped from 7.75% over the past two years to 8.31% over the past six months. And 8 p.m. reservations have fallen to just 7.8% of the total dinner reservations in the city, down from 8.31%.
“I had dinner with a few friends a couple of weeks ago at Ernesto’s, and my impulse would be to have dinner at 6 p.m. And I was like, oh, they’ll make fun of me, they’ll think that I’m a weird old lady. I’ll make the reservation for 6:30,” says Helen Rosner, food writer for The New Yorker. “And then I emailed them all and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, all I could get was 6:30.’ And they were all like, ‘Thank God.’ And we’re all adults without children who could be staying out late.”
If 9 p.m. is the new midnight, then 5 p.m. is the new 8 p.m.
Yes, there are still families and older people enjoying their pre-sunset dinners, but now they’re rubbing shoulders with millennials and Gen Zers who arrive as couples, friend groups, and solo diners. And I love it.
For me, it’s been a combination of yes, having kids and wanting to get them to bed on time and being constantly tired myself, but also wanting to avoid crowds during the height(s) of the pandemic; relishing being able to have an actual conversation without shouting over loud music and other people’s conversations; and enjoying the relative ease of scoring a reservation at hot restaurants.
And the pluses don’t stop there: I’ve found that what I like best about starting dinner before 6 p.m. is that I am all finished by 8 p.m. and feel like the whole night is still ahead of me — even if I just want to go home and get a good night’s sleep. My body also thanks me for not filling it up just a few minutes before lying down, which leaves it prone to heartburn, indigestion, and bloat. Instead, I wake up the next morning without a hangover, food coma, or being overtired. Who knew a simple time adjustment could make such a difference in my life?!
When I asked other New Yorkers why they enjoyed eating at restaurants in the early dinner hours, I got answers that ranged from feeling healthier to feeling safer taking the subway home at an earlier hour. Many people’s schedules changed during the pandemic, and for some, the new schedules just worked better.
A few years ago, we would’ve joked about dining with all the old folks or being condemned to screaming children. Yet now, 5 or 5:30 p.m. is my preferred time to dine … And I’m not alone.
“Before the pandemic, I was used to meeting friends for dinner at 7:30 or 8 p.m.,” says Maya Sigel, a production designer living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “And then, during the pandemic, I wasn’t working as much, so I started going to bed a little earlier, waking up at 7:30 a.m. every morning, and eating dinner earlier. And then I realized that I felt better when I ate early, so the new schedule just stuck when I re-entered the world as things opened up.”
Some people have been proponents of early dining even before the pandemic. High school orchestra teacher Katie Mark has to get up early for her job, yet she likes to linger over a meal in a restaurant. “If I’m going out for a nice high-end meal, I always opt for the 5:30 p.m. reservation,” she says. “I don’t want to be in a rush. I want to get a cocktail, talk about the menu, enjoy the meal, and I always get dessert. And then I don’t feel exhausted the next day.”
Photographer Andrew Bui has enjoyed eating in restaurants at the 5 p.m. hour for years now, ever since he started living on his own.
“I’m a frequent solo diner and, to be quite honest, a packed dining room at 8 p.m. can feel intimidating if you’re a party of one,” says Bui. “Five o’clock dinners feel a bit more approachable in that you tend to be in the company of other solitary diners, and I love the sense that you kind of get the restaurant to yourself before everybody else does.”
He adds, “I actually think a lot of restaurants are at their best during that first hour, when they’re in their most gleaming, freshest state: That popular dish hasn’t been 86’ed yet, the kitchen maybe gets a bit more time to spend on your order, and it hasn’t gotten to that chaotic point of the night when your waiter has to juggle both you and six other tables.”
Restaurant owners echo this sentiment.
“[During early time slots], you have the team’s undivided attention, and if you’re hungry, you’ll get food much faster,” says Jennifer Vitagliano, owner of The Musket Room.
Now that post-work happy hours are less popular since many people still haven’t returned to the office, the room is quieter and the atmosphere more serene during early dinner hours. “When we begin service, from 5 to 6 p.m., we keep it more mellow,” says Amir Nathan from Sami & Susu, which recently launched dinner service. “As we get full, we go full force. We play rock n’ roll. The volume is up. The whole shebang.” While I love me some rock n’ roll, when I dine out, I will choose mellow over full force any day — this is dinner, not clubbing.
Hospitality veteran Jeff Katz of recently opened hotspot Mel’s, as well as Crown Shy and Saga, also sees a definite shift in dining time popularities. “These days, 6:15 to 8 p.m. is prime time,” he says. “It’s somewhat easier to get a reservation at 5:30 p.m. at Mel’s, but it’s busy soon after we open the doors at 5:30 p.m. My sense is that that’s the case both because we’re new and because New Yorkers are eating a bit earlier than they used to.”
Dining early also helps restaurants meet the bottom line. “If we are to succeed, we need two-and-a-half to three turns a night,” says Vitagliano. “If the ideal dining time is 7 p.m., then we need 5 p.m. reservations as much as we need 9:30 and 10 p.m. reservations.”
Katz adds, “A restaurant runs best — it really hums — when the space is full. The earlier in the night that we can fill the restaurant, the sooner the vibe is dialed in.”
Some think dining early here has always been more popular. “I think in the U.S. it’s a cultural thing — there’s less of a late-night crowd, and most diners don’t want to go out to eat very late like they do in South America or Spain,” says chef-owner Victoria Blamey of recently opened Mena, who grew up in Santiago, Chile. When she dines out herself, she tends to prefer the earlier hours as well.
“To be honest, eating out early is one of my favorite things,” says Blamey. “That way, by the time I finish, the night is still young and I can make sure I get home to watch my favorite show or read my favorite book before bed.”
A woman after my own heart.
Devorah Lev-Tov is a food, beverage, and travel journalist with bylines in The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Eater, Vogue, and more. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two children, and senior shih-tzu. Follow her dining adventures (usually at a reasonable hour) on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.