John Walsh: Why is booking a restaurant, theatre or gig now so demeaning?

Whether it's the vogue for restaurants that won't hold a table or concerts you have to buy tickets for a year in advance, I have reservations


The playwright Jez Butterworth, whose Jerusalem was a transatlantic smash hit, has a new play out in October at London's Royal Court. The theatre bosses say they're expecting a "huge demand" for seats to The River – and, to help fans, they've arranged that no tickets can be bought in advance. They're also staging the play in the 90-seat Theatre Upstairs for a more "intimate" feel. Aspiring playgoers will need to hit the online booking facility at 9am each morning, along with several hundred other hopefuls, for their "allocation" (of – what, 45 seats?) or join a free-for-all at the Court's box office in Sloane Square from 10am for the remainder.

One marvels at the producers' ingenuity. This way they'll create "demand", the kind that'll guarantee a West End transfer, where people will happily pay above-average prices because it's a "must see". It’s a remarkable show of contempt towards the public. They’re not just being charged ever-higher prices for seats at a show – they’re being offered carefully limited access to those seats. “Yes,” the producers say wearily to playgoers and to music festival-goers, “We will allow you to pay us £100 a pop for tickets to our little entertainment. But we will make you jump through hoops to get them, because we do not give two hoots about your convenience. Suck it up, losers.” Does it sound a bit demeaning? Yes it does. And it’sthe newest incarnation of the gonzo booking phenomenon that's sweeping London, taking with it rock concerts, restaurants and art exhibitions.

Once it was simple. You rang the box office/restaurant/gallery, asked if there were seats/tickets available for a certain evening, they named a price, you paid with a card, both parties said goodbye and you told your delighted partner of your booking. Now you're likely to wind up in a rain-swept queue or using your iPhone to cudgel your brains in frustration. You can choose what drives you mad: it's either No Booking; or Impossible Booking.

At a dozen trendy eateries – the MeatLiquor burger bar, 10 Greek Street, Russell Norman's "bacaro" chain – as with The River there's no booking. At the MeatLiquor you're expected to queue for 45 minutes; in Soho, you're shooed away to sit in a scabby boozer until they call you. In Polpo and its sister houses, you're expected to mill about by the bar. "We were waiting for a table at Spuntino," one diner told me, "being elbowed by waiters, drinking our wine in a draughty corridor, pretending it was all fine, and my friend said, 'You know what? Our parents would never have put up with this'." Elsewhere, by contrast, bookings are gold dust. At the Wolseley in Piccadilly, or the Ivy in East Street, unless you're a friend of the management, they'll shake their heads sadly. You won't get near The Fat Duck or Scotts of Mayfair or Locanda Locatelli in weeks. Try the howlingly trendy new Dabbous and you'll be told nothing's available for four months. Soon London will be as exclusive as Manhattan. Ring Per Se in New York, owned by Thomas (The French Laundry) Keller, and you'll be told that the restaurant is fully booked "in perpetuity".

Rock fans will be familiar with the high-pressure online ticket scramble for seats at major concerts – Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Florence – which sees the fan fruitlessly tapping a laptop, or phoning on redial, shortly after 9am, trying different websites for tickets, before being told no seats are available for that date or time, and redirected to marked-up tickets at Seatwave.

A similar situation afflicts our noble art galleries, where the crush to attend well-reviewed exhibitions means visitors must now book a time slot. When I tried to buy tickets to Hockney at the Royal Academy, all slots were taken. I had to pull strings to get two tickets – for a one-hour slot at 8 o'clock in the morning.

It doesn't have to be like this. Theatres needn't join the Ticketmaster and Seeticket monopolists in making audiences scramble for seats. They can sell most seats early, but hold others to sell on the day to spur-of-the-moment drama fans. Restaurants should allow people outside their circle of 500 favourite patrons to eat under their roof. Galleries could install moving walkways to usher patrons past the exhibits rather than encourage them to stand stroking their chins.

We are the masses. We're the public. It's time we complained about being treated like chickens to whom some grain is contemptuously hurled from time to time by the impresarios of modern culture.

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