Photo by Will Ellis, courtesy of Semma

The One Who Keeps the BookNew York

How to Get Into Semma


Despite its name, the crew at Unapologetic Foods, the restaurant group behind New York hits Dhamaka, Masalawala & Sons, Rowdy Rooster, and Semma is actually sorry.

To be clear, they’re truly remorseful that getting a reservation at their in-demand restaurants seems to be hard to crack. This is especially the case at Semma, chef Vijay Kumar’s daringly traditional South Indian spot in the West Village, which has been a runaway hit since opening in October 2021. Scoring a seat there has become even more challenging since the restaurant earned a Michelin star in 2022.

Luckily, Semma host Gen Ruiz, aka the “One Who Keeps the Book,” empathizes; she wants as many diners as possible to enjoy the wonders of Kumar’s kitchen. That’s why she sat down with Resy to offer her best tips, tricks, and hints for getting a coveted spot.

“We are super grateful that we are as occupied as we are, and we are super grateful that our guests want to join us as much as they do,” Ruiz says. “I hope I can provide some clarification on the best ways to do just that.”

Resy: How many seats do you have at Semma?

Ruiz: We have a total of 79 seats. Twelve of those are a part of our full-service bar. During the summer, we have an additional six seats that open up in an enclosed outdoor patio if guests want to join us on the outside.

The 12 bar seats — are they reserved specifically for diners?

We accommodate all of our walk-ins at the bar. So there are 12 seats for walk-ins on a first-come, first-serve basis as soon as we open at 5 p.m. So we always advise our guests if they wish to join us without having to wait as a walk-in, to come in right at 5.

What about private dining and large groups?

We have a private dining area in the back that we offer between 5 and 7:30 p.m. and then between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., for parties of up to 24. If we don’t have any private bookings, we utilize that space for service on standard days. If you want to book a private event, we ask that you book it at least 30 days in advance. Otherwise, it’s first-come, first-serve.

When do reservations open?

Our reservations go live 15 days in advance at 7 a.m.

How quickly do they usually get booked up?

Very quickly. The same day that reservations go live at midnight, we already see that we have a full dining room of reservations by 7 a.m. So sometimes I tell people, “It’s New York City! Things don’t close until late!” So if you are out on the town, set an alarm for 12:01 a.m. and try to get that reservation!

What You Need to Know

Photo by Will Ellis, courtesy of Semma

Plan Ahead: Reservations drop 15 days out at 7 a.m.

Walk on in: Twelve seats at the bar are reserved for walk-ins.

Must-order dishes: Gunpowder dosa, the rice and lentil crepe with potato masala and sambar;  mulaikattiya thaniyam, sprouted mung beans with coconut and smoked chili; eral thokku, tiger prawns with green chili, fenugreek and curry leaves; meen pollichathu, banana leaf-wrapped whole sea bass; and kanyakumari nandu masala, Dungeness crabs with parotta and coconut rice (24 hour pre-order is requested).

Photo by Will Ellis, courtesy of Semma

Pro tips: Show up slightly before 5 p.m. to nab one of the 12 bar seats. Come in the summer when chances are slightly better with six additional seats available in the enclosed patio. Stop by later during dinner service at around 9 p.m., or try to time your arrival in a 90-minute interval from the first seating and be willing to have a drink in the waiting area by the window sill before sitting.

The Layout: Semma has a 12-seat bar, reserved for walk-ins; a main dining room; and a semi-private room for large parties that is used for regular service when parties are not booked.

Is there a certain day of the week where my chances would be better to grab that walk-in?

Truthfully, we are pretty busy week-round. So I always just advise guests that 5 p.m. would be the best time if you don’t want to wait. Then we typically estimate the same amount of turn time at the bar that we have for our tables, which is 90 minutes. We don’t take a waitlist so if guests want to wait with us in-house in a little waiting area along the window sill, we can get you started on drinks.

Got it. What’s the best seat in the house?

Table 209, which is in our main dining area, is more on the private side. I always enjoy sitting at that table. Also, there is a round table that is in the private dining area that I also enjoy sitting at as well. I think those two tables give an extra sense of privacy and are great if you are having a serious meeting or if you’re on a really important date, for example.

So it’s Friday night at 7 p.m. Set the scene for me. What’s happening?

The restaurant is full. Our sommelier, Ashley Peters, will be opening up bottles of wine. I’ll be on the floor to ensure things move along smoothly, checking on servers. The lights are dim. The music’s going. And there’s a sense of home-away-from-home in the restaurant that you just never get sick of.

Who are your clientele?

We have a very versatile group of guests who can range from date nights to business meetings to family reunions. We do have VIPs. Probably our biggest clientele are Southern Indians who haven’t had some of these dishes since they left home and it’s been years. Those are the people that we especially look forward to sharing this experience with.

A spread of dishes from Semma
Photo by Paul McDonough, courtesy of Semma
A spread of dishes from Semma
Photo by Paul McDonough, courtesy of Semma

What kind of music are you playing?

It’s all it’s all Tamilian music, contemporary Tamilian music.

What are the must orders?

You must order the gunpowder dosa; it is definitely a staple of the house. The mung beans and the tiger prawns are also a house favorite. The sea bass is steamed in banana leaves and it’s something that a lot of our guests rave about. Then there are the crabs, which are very special and sell out every evening. We ask that guests preorder it 24 hours in advance, so depending on how many guests have ordered it already, we might have an extra one or two to sell to guests and provide them with that opportunity. If you want the crab and if you haven’t preordered it already, just let the servers know immediately and they will check availability.

How long does your Notify list usually get?

Our Notify list averages from 1,200 to about 1,600 or more. And if a reservation comes up on Notify, grab it right away as it will disappear quickly. Have fast thumbs!

How many covers are you usually doing per night?

About 200 to 220 max per night. We aim to do closer to 200 as it’s really important that we maintain quality above quantity. We’re not trying to get people in and out as fast as we can. We need to make sure that everyone has a great time and that the kitchen can keep up with the demand without sacrificing anything or cutting any corners.

Chef Vijay Kumar
Chef Vijay Kumar Photo courtesy of Semma
The sprouted mung beans dish at Semma is a house favorite. Photo courtesy of Semma

Let’s talk about your cocktails. What should we be drinking at Semma?

The Thalaivaa is a twist on an Old Fashioned. It contains bourbon and spiced jaggery syrup, and it also has a coconut ice ball in the middle of that melts, so as you continue to drink it transforms the drink. And then the Aiyo! is our spicy Mezcal red chili drink that has a sour tamarind candy at the top. Super, super yum on both ends, and they are house favorites.

And tell me about some wine highlights?

We have a Beaujolais that I think perfectly complements our food. On the white side we have a very pleasant Sauvignon Blanc and our Chenin Blanc is also very pleasant as well. They all really help enhance a lot of the flavor profiles. What we’re working hard on right now is a wonderful reserve list. And we also have a sommelier in house.

Is Semma the hardest Unapologetic Foods restaurant to get into?

You know, everyone says that we’re all very hard to get into because they only want to snag a 7:30 p.m. reservation. But if you come at 5, or if you want to do a later seating like at 9, the last seating, you can definitely slip in. So perhaps the ultimate tip for Semma is to come a little before five o’clock, hang out a bit, and grab one of the walk-in seats at the bar. I think it’s important to note that the bar at Semma is full-service and you can order anything you want at the bar — unlike our sister restaurant Dhamaka, which has a limited bar menu. Also, our bar seats one, two, three, and four people at a time, so it’s also low-key high-top table. So if you want to come with four people and sit at that corner, it’s like your own private corner. I would even say that is one of the best seats in the house, too.

Or try to come during one of the time slot seating turns, at 6:30 or 7. Again, we can always get you started with drinks in house. And a lot of our guests will hang out, ask us about the menu and we’ll walk them through it even before they get to the bar. Then they’re super amped up about what they’re going to eat and they feel confident in their choices.

Semma is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m.

Kathleen Squires is an award-winning food and travel writer and documentary producer based in New York City. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.