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Letter: The chase after that prized dinner table

RUNNING a restaurant is a delicate balancing act: a "high-risk, high-return" affair. One of the main reasons that dining out in London has improved so much over the past 10 years is that restaurateurs have become much more sophisticated business people: by keeping an eye on the bread and butter of finance, they are able to offer customers a better deal.

You can't, of course, keep all of the people happy all of the time. Amanda Kelly ("No lingering over the linguine, please", 9 November) wasn't pleased that Bluebird could offer her a table at 6pm only if she and her party returned it by 8pm. But imagine how she would have felt had she been the 8pm reservation and had arrived at Bluebird to be told there were diners at her table and they weren't ready to leave. She, and everyone else, might be interested to know that all reservations from 8pm onwards are for the remainder of the night - that's a full seven hours on a Friday or Saturday night at Mezzo.

Providing that quality is not compromised, however, any restaurant will want to feed as many people as it can. At some of our restaurants, we take the view that it is best to advise customers in advance that we might need their table back if the reservation is for early in the evening. If no one else needs it we'll happily let customers remain at their table all night. But when so many early-evening reservations are made by people going on to the theatre or cinema, a restaurant would be foolish to ignore the potential revenue of booking the table for a second sitting. It's also important that customers going on somewhere else know that they will make it on time, and our restaurants try hard to provide speed and efficiency without making customers feel that there's a frantic rush.

This takes me on to the issue of sittings. Bookings are taken at 30- minute intervals, and if Ms Kelly couldn't get a reservation at Mezzo for 7.30pm, it was probably because the restaurants didn't have a table available.

We think it's better to let people know in advance that we may want their table back, and we try to do this in a courteous manner, to avoid potential embarrassment later on - which is more than can be said for that perennial nightmare, the "no-show" table. Our restaurants experience between 5 and 10 per cent of these in any one week.

Terence Conran

London W1