Dial for Dinner

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Friday, April 16, 2010 

under Education & Career by Tom Lee

What with the huge multitude of venues to choose from, the ever-present language barriers, and just not having the right number on you all the time, life is much easier with an assistant to make restaurant reservations for you. That at least is the premise behind the Dining Secretary website, which aims to help bewildered foodies find and reserve a table in a host of Shanghai eateries, taking in a broad spectrum of local and international cuisines.
The main benefit of this concept lies in its accessible two-step process. First, find a venue you'd like to munch at by browsing their database; second, click on "Reserve Now" and fill in the simple form. The address and reservation details will be texted directly to your phone. Travelers on the go can also just dial 5757-5777.

This service combines a comprehensive search engine with a call center full of 180 people, ready to book you anything from window-side nooks to booth seats. With such a large staff, how many of those serve English customers? Well, until recently it was just two. The germ for this website has been running in Chinese since 2004, only expanding a few months ago into Japanese and English-speaking territory. As a result, the company has started out with a modest team, testing the shallows rather than diving in the deep end. Now in three languages, users can browse by district, popular area, price per head, metro stop and cuisine, discovering over 5000 restaurant listings.

Nabbing a few tips from similar models, such as America's Open Table and Britain's Top Table, the website offers special discounts at certain restaurants, which change every few weeks. These currently extend mostly to Chinese establishments, where they already have a strong base, so it's great for grabbing a bit of local cuisine less covered in expatriate publications, both high end and low end. They also mimic the concept that gives users points for reserving through Dining Secretary - and points mean prizes!

The company is even giving away food for free to a chosen few members. Having premiered their first complimentary tasting event last weekend, the management hopes these culinary meetings will become staples of their growing site, generating spring boards for dining discussions.

The Bottom Line: Instead of ordering in, order out with this helpful little reservation tool.


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