Turning up to an exclusive restaurant and bagging a table without a booking was once the preserve of the powerful. Now, however, a new generation of restaurants are shunning the time-tested system of making reservations in favour of first-come-first-served seating.
By refusing to take bookings, these now-ubiquitous dining spots seem to imagine they are doing their customers a favour. By lowering the barrier to entry and opening their kitchens to informal passers-by (and the pint-after-work hordes) they probably claim to be more egalitarian than the stuffy call-ahead crowd of yesteryear.
It’s a nice idea but it is false economy. In practice, queuing for tables confines hungry punters to clock-watching in restaurant bars, doomed to slam back expensive apéritifs and enviously eye-up eating couples for the slightest hint of them vacating their seats.
Recently, I tried to book myself a table in Soho and after canvassing a few trusted opinions and mulling over my Wednesday-evening options, I was relishing a rare foray into the city’s culinary heartland. I needn’t have gotten my hopes up.
“We don’t take reservations,” came the increasingly inevitable refrain of disinterested replies. “You can have a drink at the bar and wait for a seat,” said marginally more explanatory staff, maybe sensing my mounting frustration. “If you’re determined to eat here, you’ll probably be able to,” said one – in a manner perhaps intended to inspire motivation.
The takeaway here is that when restaurants don’t accept bookings the benefit is rarely passed on to the consumer. It makes queues bigger, disappointments deeper and restaurants eminently less attractive – mainly because you see them from the outside, tummy rumbling, as you wait for someone to finish their main and give up their seat – a perch gained solely (you have time to consider) by virtue of finishing work before you.
Not only does the refusal to take reservations arbitrarily favour those with time to wait (or waste) it also guarantees locals don’t get a look in. Some delirious establishments even insist that those waiting for tables stay and drink at their bar in order to keep their name on the ironically named “short list”.
I understand restaurants’ reluctance to kick the habit. Queues snaking around the block are good adverts for their popularity; people in queues don’t cancel and leave free seats to fill, if those customers need to rearrange they can be replaced by the people behind them. This said, a restaurant’s responsibility is not just to churn through customers. Repeat business comes from the enjoyment of a meal – the food, yes – but also the fact that you won’t be judged for taking your time over a glass of wine and you won’t have to sacrifice an hour of your life to secure a seat.
Although first-come-first-served might be flavour of the week, I for one have my reservations.
Josh Fehnert is edits section editor for Monocle.