Just imagine going to the theatre and paying for your evening’s entertainment when the curtain goes down.
Or handing over a few notes as you pass out of the turnstiles once the final whistle has been blown in a Premier League match. Peculiar, no? Then why is it different for top-flight restaurants? Why should they wait to be paid until after the meal? Indeed, why should they be expected to buy and prepare food, polish the silverware and have staff on hand when often those who have reserved a table don’t show up?
It’s germane because in Los Angeles, one swanky restaurant has so tired of this practice that it is now naming and shaming no-shows on social media. This has been greeted with much supportive blade-waving by chefs and restaurateurs in Britain. The head chef at one of London’s hottest recent openings intimated a desire to go further and inflict violence on such miscreants.
Another, whose place is said to be booked out almost every night, announced that on a recent evening he’d had 30 no-shows. No wonder chefs are angry. The hospitality trade works on very tight margins and must walk a tightrope of having enough of their dishes while not being in a position to waste anything. This explains the rise of the irritating (for the customer) no-reservations restaurants.
One well-respected gastropub manager I spoke to said that often the culprits were hotel concierges, who book tables all over town under assumed names, so that they can show off to guests that they can “get them in” anywhere they like; then if no one wants a table, so be it, which is a rather brutal practice.
But what’s the (realistic) alternative? Naming and shaming will only hurt the restaurant in the end. The practice of taking a credit card on booking, with the proviso (as recently happened to me) that if I cancel less than 48 hours ahead of my reservation, £40 per person will be debited from my account, is outrageously bossy.
I don’t know about you, but I rarely get two days’ notice of the Norovirus, or my car breaking down, or my deputy calling in sick. Four hours’ notice maybe. I eat out as part of my job and know the passion and sacrifice that goes into giving us a plate of delicious food in a convivial room; I also know that sometimes it’s impossible to honour a reservation. So should we forget deposits and threats, and pay in advance? Can’t see the problem myself, but perhaps reluctance comes down to our squeamishness at complaining. If we pay for a meal in advance and it is disappointing, we should speak up and get a partial or full refund. But after two bottles of Malbec, a hanger steak and triple-cooked fries, perhaps we’d make a dog’s dinner of it. Respect is a dish best served hot.