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Outside of Toronto, most Canadians would rather eat at 5 p.m. than 7 p.m., according to reservation software company OpenTable.RossHelen/AFP/Getty Images

The 7:30 p.m. table used to be the most coveted reservation time. But lately, you may have noticed a little more competition for a 5:30 booking. Those early reservations, once shunned as an uncool time to be dining, have become a hot ticket.

How did the early-bird reservation go from a penny-pincher’s special to a chic time to dine out?

It appears that a combination of pandemic hangover, technological nudges and where you live in the country is at play.

Outside of Toronto, most Canadians would rather eat at 5 than 7, according to reservation software company OpenTable.

“Toronto people hustle and work late. Western provinces are quieter,” says Amelie Nguyen, co-owner of Anh and Chi in Vancouver. “People in Vancouver stop work at 5. They’re home at 6. The city closes by 10 p.m.”

Anh and Chi, which Nguyen runs with her brother and mother, regularly fills up at 5 p.m. Nguyen believes that her early clientele are savvy diners who know to avoid a two-hour wait by arriving before 6.

In the nearby Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Como Taperia features a 4-to-5-p.m. happy hour with discounted drinks and a free tapa at the bar, which is quickly followed by the dinner rush.

“Since the pandemic we have definitely seen the typical 7 p.m. push change to 5 or 6,” co-owner Shaun Layton says. “We get hit right at 4 many days. On the peak days the lineup can be around the corner before we open.”

Layton acknowledges the tempo of the area – a tech hub with lots of people looking for drinks and snacks in the late afternoon – helps to cultivate the Spanish afternoon culture of afternoon drinks and dining.

When it comes to reservations for traditional dinner service, how people book a table may be influencing what time they make it for.

Rean McKinley, executive general manager of Gusto Italian Grill & Bar in Moncton, credits the reservation software Tock with driving diners toward early seatings.

The platform enables restaurants to set a cap on how many diners they will sit in a 15-minute period. When a slot is full, would-be patrons are prompted to consider other times. At Gusto, the kitchen can efficiently serve 32 guests every 15 minutes during the peak of 6 to 7 p.m. When that headcount is reached during a quarter-hour block, the system suggests 5:15 or 5:45 instead.

McKinley says they used to blindly accept 6 p.m. reservations. To demonstrate how Tock has helped drive earlier tables, he shares a screencap that shows an even distribution of reservations for a recent Saturday, from 4 to 10 p.m.

“Instead of facing a surge of 80 guests arriving at 6, followed by another wave of 80 at 6:15, this approach not only ensures that we accommodate as many guests as possible but also prevents overwhelming our kitchen and bar staff with an excessive influx of orders.”

But it’s possible Gusto wouldn’t be able to get diners to even consider those earlier times if a social shift hadn’t made them more desirable.

A dinner reservation cements the end of the workday by creating a hard out from the office: You can’t accept that 4:30 p.m. meeting invitation if you’ve got a table at 5:15. And now that so many people are working remotely, that early dinner can also be a bulwark against our impulse to work late. With Gen Z sleeping more and drinking less, young people and healthier lifestyles are guiding the change too.

“I would suggest it’s directly related to self care and being mindful of circadian rhythms,” says Erin Clatney, who runs Parlour in Ottawa. Though the restaurant opens at 5:30 p.m., she thinks it may need to be earlier based on demand. “People are just exhausted post-COVID and perhaps giving themselves permission to retreat early.”

At the Carbon Bar in Toronto, co-owner Yannick Bigourdan has noticed a similar trend, with the dinner hour creeping into the afternoon since the downtown spot recovered from the pandemic.

With the bar opened at 4, but the kitchen at 5, the room kept getting busy earlier. Groups having early drinks were requesting to look at the food menu. Soon people were asking about pretheatre dinner or being able to eat in 90 minutes before heading to a game. (Bigourdan estimates that 80 per cent of those early diners were going somewhere else after.)

Traditional dining-room traffic patterns have become chaotic, Bigourdan says. “Once upon a time you could plan for a Wednesday or a Friday. You knew what your percentage of walk-ins would be. It was very predictable, once the business was mature. Today, you could have a crazy Monday and a slow Tuesday, followed by two crazy days and a much slower Friday, with no explanation. The patterns are broken.”

Shrewd business owners are using the shift to their advantage. Consumer demand may be leading the 5 p.m. trend, but it is being propelled forward by restaurants’ grappling with rising expenses. Early seatings increase revenue during a time of day when demand is traditionally low, without incurring additional labour costs; a restaurant doesn’t need to extend operating hours, as it would if it introduced breakfast, lunch or late-night service.

Bigourdan has capitalized on the desire for early dining at Carbon Bar with a prix fixe menu from 4 to 6 p.m, aimed at getting people in and out in 90 minutes. He also offers a three-course meal at 5 at his other establishments: Amano Trattoria and even Lucie, a tasting-menu French restaurant where dinner typically lasts two to three hours and where it was previously rare for anyone to eat at such an hour.

So is 4:30 the new 7:30? The truth may be more idiosyncratic than that. But for restaurants that have had a tough four years, there’s no doubt early dining is good for business.

“This is about resetting patterns of predictability. A more normal way of doing business,” Bigourdan says. “So I am very bullish on that early dinner crowd.”

One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Inspired Dining section.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Anh and Chi does not take reservations. This version has been updated.

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