How the recession ate into diners' table time

It is one of the most galling experiences known to the modern diner. Having finally succeeded in securing a table at a top restaurant at the hour of your choosing, no sooner have you been seated when you become aware of a panicky feeling that your allotted time in this gastronomic promised land is rapidly ticking away.

Restaurants forced to contend with the economic downturn, or simply to cope with the overwhelming appetite of patrons for sampling their wares, are increasingly resorting to the practice of "table-turning" – asking customers with reservations to leave their table by an appointed time so other diners can be seated.

Research shows that in at least five restaurants across Britain, diners pay more than £1 a minute for the pleasure of eating. The Plate of the Nation study of more than 100 restaurants, carried out by the lastminute.com website, found that 15 per cent imposed a maximum dining time at busy periods. More than half of the 2,000 diners questioned said they found being asked to "sup up and ship out" annoying.

The most expensive restaurant per minute was the Michelin-starred Hakkasan, a celebrated hangout of Premiership footballers and passing Hollywood A-listers in search of a top-end Chinese meal in London's Soho. With an average meal for two at £148 and a two-hour time limit, sitting down to eat there is likely to cost £1.23 every 60 seconds.

A spokesman for the restaurant, which also has branches in Miami and Abu Dhabi, said: "Since our launch, Hakkasan has consistently been one of the most popular restaurants in London and, to satisfy this demand, we operate a time limit on our tables, a policy all of our valued and loyal customers are aware of."

Second on the list was Midsummer House in Cambridge, with two Michelin stars, which charged £1.16 per minute. Its head chef, Daniel Clifford, said that of its 12 tables only two were rotated on Friday and Saturday nights when demand was at its peak. He said guests were allotted three hours and had the option of taking coffee in the lounge or in the garden overlooking the River Cam.

The other three restaurants which charged more than £1 per minute were Zuma in Knightsbridge, South-west London, Hibiscus in Mayfair, central London, and Simpsons, of Edgbaston, Birmingham. Mark Bower, the lifestyle director at lastminute.com, said diners understood that restaurants had to make money

But he added: "When they are being asked to spend more than £1 per minute for their meal, foodies will question the value of their chosen eatery. We are urging diners to check table-turning policies when booking and to negotiate just how much time they have for their meal to avoid feeling rushed."

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