Consider how it works when you can’t just buy a place at the table, as is still the case in most restaurants today. Tables at the best places are hard to get and you have to take other measures, such as waiting in long lines, trying to befriend restaurant staff, becoming a regular, or eating much earlier or later than you want to, among other tactics. Those actions cost money, or time, or they are inconvenient, or all of the above. For most people, it is better to have the option to pay money up front to ensure access when desired.
While the explicit pricing of reservations does favor the wealthy, keep in mind a restaurant can only demand so much money. The ability to charge for tables will, over time, limit the rate at which prices for the food go up and that is likely more or less a wash. Besides, paying for a reservation is commonly about 10 percent of the total value of the check, so if you need to, skip dessert and win those dollars back.
When restaurants don’t charge for reservations, they tend to hold back tables for regular customers, celebrities, very attractive people and the politically and socially well connected. You might be dying to go to that restaurant for a special birthday or anniversary, but you’ll simply be unable to get in. Money is ultimately a more egalitarian force than privilege, as everyone’s greenbacks are worth the same.
Here is very different contribution from that forum, “The Latest Slap in the Face From Restaurants,” and here is “Hospitality Shouldn’t Have a Price.” Here is a chef and restauranteur explaining how he sees it.
If you would like to ponder two follow-up questions, they might be these. First, has the growth of on-line reviews made charging for reservations easier? (And not just technologically easier.) Reputations spread on-line rather than through word of mouth, and thus the restaurant need not work so hard to put the price below market-clearing and attempt to cull customers on the basis of who will spread good word of mouth. Second, how much of the efficiencies here are coming from a form of output-increasing price discrimination (high demanders can pay more to buy their way in, for low demanders some times remain free or cheap), and how much from better matching or other features of the reservations-buying institution?