No lingering over the linguine, please

Many trendy London restaurants are now so busy that they insist diners eat in shifts. Amanda Kelly goes looking for slow food
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The Independent Online
Fast food has arrived at London's four-star restaurants. They might not serve you burgers and fries, but the maitre d' wants you wined, dined, and out of your chair within a couple of hours. The proprietors of the capital's crowded restaurants have realised that their turnover, not to say profit, depends on no longer letting people keep their tables for the evening.

Their solution - to introduce eating in shifts. Customers used to lingering over the menu, or chatting over the cognac, have had a rude awakening in recent months with restaurants allowing them just two hours for three courses and coffee. What galls customers most, though, is that many top restaurants will no longer allow them to pick the time when they reserve a table.

The justification? Money, of course. Overheads are rising and food costs growing, industry insiders say. From a meal which costs the diner pounds 25, the restaurant will usually pocket less than half in profits.

Last week we phoned several of London's best-known restaurants to see how keen they were to put the customer first - or to stick to their shifts.

We asked if they could fit in a party of four for an after-work meal at 6pm on Friday. First stop was Sir Terence Conran's newest restaurant, the Bluebird in Chelsea. "You do know about our reservations system don't you," the receptionist immediately asked. "We have two sittings an evening and if you arrive at 6pm you'll have to be out by 8pm." In that case, we said, we would try somewhere else. At the Mezzo main restaurant, in Wardour Street, also owned by Conran, a table at 7.30pm was not possible. We were told we would have to eat either earlier or at 8pm.

The story was the same at The Ivy where the receptionist gave the remarkably frank reply: "You can have a table at 6pm but you'll be kicked out by 8pm. I'd be lying if I told you otherwise." Oliver Peyton's restaurant Coast offered an extra half hour but said we'd have to go by 8.30pm.

At Momo, the fashionable Moroccan eaterie, there was a refusal of a table for 9pm; only sittings at 8pm or 10pm were allowed. Staff at Joe Allen in Covent Garden were even more adamant: it operates a strict rota of three sittings an evening at two hour intervals from 5.30pm.

Michael Gottlieb, chairman of the Restaurateur Association of Great Britain and owner of Smollensky's in the Strand, admitted that the sittings system was for the benefit of restaurant owners. "Of course it is not a good thing for the public," he said. "They would like to be able to stay for as long as they want. But sittings are becoming more and more popular, although, by and large, it is just with the larger or most popular restaurants."

"For restaurant owners it's a simple matter of economics," Mr Gottlieb said. "Building and food costs are rising so high that they need to recover as much as they can in as short a time as possible. Sittings allow us to serve more people in an evening. We only have sittings at the weekend but if the public don't like it they can go elsewhere. This is, however, my opinion and not the policy of the association."

Mark Hayes, editor of Hotel and Restaurant Magazine, is less enthusiastic about the trend. He said: "The idea of sittings strikes me as being rather odd because for kitchen staff the worst thing is when a lot of people order their food at the same time. The market is so competitive, with more and more restaurants offering quality food for cheaper prices, that they can't afford to annoy their customers. If people can't get a meal at a time which suits them, they will go elsewhere. "

For those diners who prefer a relaxed ambience, there are just a few boltholes left. One is Woz, a Mediterranean restaurant off Portobello Road, where manageress Adel Thomas says people should have time to eat. "We don't want people to feel that they are just a table number fitting into a certain slot. People are coming out to dinner and we like to treat them like dinner guests."

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