Mere humans line up before State Bird Provisions even opens its doors, waiting hours for a coveted walk-in table, and hunch over their computers as the clock strikes 4 a.m. to make reservations 60 days in advance at the place the James Beard Foundation called the Best New Restaurant in 2013. But San Francisco is no longer a city of mere humans. To get into State Bird, 27-year-old computer-security engineer Diogo Mónica has coded a bot to check for available spots twice a second, 172,800 times a day, 1,209,600 times a week. If someone cancels a reservation or a new opening is posted, Mónica’s bot will snatch it up in a fraction of a second. He’s eaten there so many times, the taste of roasted bone marrow with chanterelles has begun to blur with the memory of guinea-hen dumplings, he says sadly.
Recently, Mónica has noticed his bot working harder for reservations. He suspects an uptick in rival bots—a sign of what he’s come to call the “arms race of restaurant reservations.” Mónica’s fiercest competitor, though, is Jason Hung, another 27-year-old programmer, who designed a bot several years ago while in New York to snap up Momofuku reservations; in what Hung considers an act of democratic goodwill, he decided to let anyone use his bot, even those with zero programming skills. After 19,435 attempts, the bot got one couple a table at Nopa, known for its carefully curated wine list; it took 23,265 tries to nab a Valentine’s Day table for two at Coqueta. “People have called me a lifesaver,” Hung says.