Arabica KX – a lost opportunity

Nick is exasperated by a new, empty London restaurant.

I have calmed down now but I have to admit that a short time ago I was angry, not perhaps the ideal condition in which to put pen to paper but nevertheless…

And all this sentiment because we were turned away from the new Arabica in King’s Cross for lunch. But it was the manner, rather than the fact that this happened, that has caused me to write this.

Let me explain. Jancis was due back from Paris on a Eurostar that was set to arrive at 12.09, perfect timing for a Sunday lunch rendezvous and particularly so as her clock was then one hour ahead. We spoke on the phone and I suggested Arabica, a new Lebanese-inspired restaurant practically on our doorstep in King’s Cross. She willingly agreed but wondered whether it was fully open yet. I agreed to phone.

I was answered, after the annoying automatic choices, by a young woman who answered my initial question as to whether they were open with an emphatic ‘Yes’ and to my second as to whether I needed to make a booking with a ‘No, we are relatively quiet this lunchtime.’

I met Jancis at St Pancras and we walked through Granary Square as the dark clouds started rolling in and approached Arabica down Stable Street. We entered a smart, empty restaurant at 12.30 where we greeted by two female receptionists flanked by two men, one of them in a suit. Behind them stretched empty tables.

The receptionist then asked us whether we had a reservation. When I replied that we did not, we were promptly told that the restaurant was fully booked. I told them of the telephone encounter I had had with their receptionist less than an hour previously.

It was then that these four committed a series of stupid errors. The first was not to acknowledge our presence, to make us feel welcome – every restaurant’s raison d’être – and to welcome us in. How much extra pressure can a table for two put on a kitchen – especially as, if they had asked, we would have said that we wanted to be out in no more than an hour?

This was then compounded by one of the men actually questioning my telephone conversation. Was I sure that I had not been speaking to their other branch in Borough, he asked? I was sure of my facts. But more important was their immediate implication that we, the customers, were in the wrong. In hospitality customers should always be left with the impression that they are right (even if they are not). In this instance the staff were in the wrong.

But neither of these two mistakes compared with the third this gang of four made in refusing us a table, or even two seats at the counter, which was the opportunity they lost in making us ‘friends of Arabica’.  (They muttered something about serving only friends and family yesterday, and I see their official soft opening starts on Wednesday.)

Exterior of Arabica restaurant in King's Cross

Had they welcomed us, their hungry neighbours, in, even putting a time limit on our stay, we would have been extremely grateful. And after what I am sure would have been a good lunch we would have gone out singing the restaurant’s praises and become regular customers. This opportunity has now been lost.

In my book The Art of The Restaurateur I devote a section entitled ‘Working the Door’ to the challenges, and pleasures, facing any receptionist in every busy restaurant anywhere in the world. For this I interviewed Kerry Held, who for two years worked the doors of Blue Smoke on New York’s East 23rd Street, which, with its jazz club underneath, could welcome as many as 500 customers on a busy night. She ended my interview with the following statement, ‘We are there to be the agent for the guest, rather than the gatekeeper. We have to be seen and heard to be advocating for the customer. It’s that simple, and that hard.’

Somebody should bring this statement of intent, of welcome, to the attention of Arabica’s senior management.

Sample dishes at Arabica restaurants in London