Stricken restaurants are now considering the unthinkable: taking deposits upon booking. But there's another solution that harkens back to a pre-digital ageby Jonathan Nunn / August 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
During a busy service in 1988, a motorcycle pulled up outside Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurant Aubergine. The rider ran into the foyer, snatched a big black book tallying six months’ worth of reservations, and sped off. This audacious theft became the talk of the food world. The finger was pointed at Ramsay’s former mentor Marco Pierre White, whom Ramsay suspected of trying to depose him. But in the event, White was marginalised by Aubergine’s owners and—mysteriously—the restaurant’s lack of bookings didn’t affect the running of the restaurant. That mystery wasn’t solved until almost 10 years later. “I nicked it,” Ramsay told the New Yorker in 1997. It was part of a plot to frame White and prevent him from taking over the restaurant: “I still have the book in a safe at home.”
This episode proves two things: one, that restaurant drama used to be way more exciting, and two, the reservations book used to be king. Perhaps it was the overwhelming power of the book that led restaurateurs to embrace the digitisation of the booking system, now run by a handful of online companies such as OpenTable, Yelp and Resy. No more faff, no more questionable complaints of “my booking has been lost” and no more small talk over the phone.
But this has come at a price. When restaurants reopened in July, the Instagram feeds of chefs were punctuated with those dreaded words: “no show,” otherwise known as a guest who has not turned up for their booking. It has become so widespread that it has even become a verb: “to no show.” Before the coronavirus, chef Jackson Boxer was already describing the “pure visceral nausea” of realising that your customers have no intention of turning up; once it hit, Tom Kerridge rallied against it as “disgraceful and shortsighted.”
Stricken restaurants are now considering the unthinkable: taking deposits upon booking. This has been cheered on in many foodie circles: if you love restaurants, then you should have no problem leaving a deposit, they say. But most people don’t love restaurants intimately. They just want somewhere vaguely nice, where they won’t get hammered by extra charges if their dining partner drops out. Restaurants…