"No-shows" are jeopardising restaurants—and demonstrate how alienated from one another we've become

Stricken restaurants are now considering the unthinkable: taking deposits upon booking. But there's another solution that harkens back to a pre-digital age

August 30, 2020
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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 that start enforcing deposits may find that people don’t love them as much as they think.

Of course we pay in advance for almost everything: train tickets, flights, films and theatre. Why should a meal be different? Why not see it as an event? But meals aren’t events, nor are they art, except for a handful of rarefied restaurants that probably already take deposits. Restaurants are spaces where hospitality is meted out, and hospitality requires a degree of trust. Since their very inception, the meal has been a contract between buyer and seller: you order, you eat and then you pay. But as food writer Tim Hayward perceptively pointed out in the Financial Times two years ago, both parties now think that the other has too much power.

Between taking deposits and letting customers run riot, there is the Luddite option. Have customers and restaurants tried talking to each other? Small talk is the missing element that used to bind the social contract; what the film director YasujiroOzu called “the lubricant that makes the world go round.” It’s also what stopped the balance of power from tilting too far towards the customer.

At my favourite restaurant in London, Singburi, a tiny Thai place in Leytonstone, you still have to phone up and exchange pleasantries with its fearsome matriarch Thelma. You will take whatever table is offered to you and move the earth to be there on time, so help you God. Singburi must have the smallest proportion of no shows in London. These small words “good morning,” “how can I help?,” and “how are you?” don’t seem like much, but they remind both parties that we are still human. Whether it’s online booking systems, or the delivery apps that have become even more powerful during the pandemic, capitalism has found a way of setting up barriers where there didn’t used to be any. No shows are simply a symptom of this modern alienation. Deposits and other barriers are no panacea. If we want to stop the tyranny of the no show, then we need to put down our apps and work together to break these barriers down.