When you just can't book
25 Feb 2012 by Nick Lander

This article was also published in the Financial Times.


Over a glass of Dom Pérignon 2003 at the Room to Read dinner in Sydney, which raised over AUD1 million for this estimable charity, I heard something that will delight restaurateurs everywhere.

The comment came from Katie Jacobs, whose job selling Dom Pérignon in the US and now in Australia has taken her to many a restaurant. We were discussing the increasingly common practice of restaurants operating a no-bookings policy in the evenings, a policy that has had the not insignificant impact that she and her friends have now changed when they go out to eat. 'We now avoid Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings because they are so popular and the wait for a table can be so long. We look to meet earlier in the week when the restaurants are not so busy.'

Although this may not have been what the restaurateurs had in mind when they adopted this policy, this shift in customer behaviour will be most welcome. Full houses six nights a week are much better than a quiet start to the week followed by hectic evenings when the service levels may wilt under pressure.

There are several, closely related reasons that lie behind this move towards not taking bookings in the evening, although all restaurateurs are aware that they will never be able to attract the local business community unless they accept bookings at lunch. Dinner, however, is very different.

The main reason is that it immediately does away with the potential of no-shows, the costly and obvious spectacle of a table standing empty all night because the booking was made for the following night or the customer forgot to cancel. These are every restaurateur's nightmare.

Just as effectively, a no-bookings policy also removes the potential for one of the biggest sources of a stand-off between the receptionist and the customer. This occurs when someone walks in without a booking only to be told by the receptionist that there are no tables available because those that are so conspicuously unoccupied even from the front desk have been reserved for customers who are yet to arrive.

And, finally, a no-bookings policy removes at a stroke the need for any receptionist to say while taking the booking that your table is only available for a specific time slot of an hour and a half or two hours maximum. Because a no-bookings policy induces customers to come earlier in the evening, restaurateurs are able to fit in two sittings in the evenings, enabling them to generate the volume necessary to keep prices at a reasonable level.

Those restaurateurs who have switched to a no-bookings policy have appreciated these advantages, as well as the cost savings of not having to employ full-time receptionists, without, I believe, making their customers aware of the numerous benefits that ensue. Nor have all of them fully realised that, if they are going to keep their customers waiting for a table, it is now incumbent upon them to offer a civilized space where they can stand, have a drink, look at the menu and wait for their table.

Luke Wilson and chef Cameron Emirali found somewhat inadvertently that their excellent new restaurant, 10 Greek Street, in the heart of London's Soho, came with its own waiting room attached, despite the fact that it is only a narrow room with tables down both sides. The Pillar of Hercules, the pub where so many writers once met, is only three doors away and Wilson asks those waiting for a table to have a drink there before he calls them on their mobile.

The wait is worth it on the basis of what I have enjoyed there. The basics are very good, from the bread Emirali bakes every morning to a bowl of celeriac and apple soup and grilled sardines with a salsa verde. More intricate dishes included a terrine of smoked trout and mackerel wrapped in smoked salmon with diced 10_Gk_St__2_beetroot and horseradish; the thinnest of octopus carpaccio with caperberries, chili and lemon; a fillet of wild sea bass with artichokes and fennel; a tube of filo pastry enclosing slow-cooked guinea fowl and pheasant with braised shallots; and a chocolate and cardamom pot with blood oranges that my guest finished so rapidly that I didn't have a chance to ask for a taste.

Their collective ambition to create an affordable neighbourhood restaurant is enhanced by Wilson's experience in the wine trade and his determination to offer some really exciting wines, as well as a blackboard full of bin ends, at extremely low mark ups.

Their investment of £250,000, the keen menu and wine prices and the atmosphere that comes from the fact that the 28 seats plus nine round the open kitchen are continually busy are all predicated on their no-bookings policy in the evening, Wilson explained. 'Last Friday night we served 70 customers at an average spend of £35. If we took bookings we would probably never serve more than 50 customers in an evening and we would have to charge £55. This approach, I feel, is far more egalitarian.'

This move to a no-bookings policy will not please everyone, particularly those, like me, of a certain age or above. But I do resent being told even before I have sat down when I will be asked to vacate my table and I do want to see more affordable, privately owned neighbourhood restaurants prosper.

10 Greek Street, 10 Greek Street, London W1D 4DH, 020 7734 4677
www.10greekstreet.co.uk