Stephen Jardine: ‘No reservation’ policy is a no-no for diners

A proper welcome and avoiding unnecessary interventions go a long way to providing diners with an enjoyable experience.
A proper welcome and avoiding unnecessary interventions go a long way to providing diners with an enjoyable experience.
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A top Scottish chef once let me into the secret of his success. It involved three key steps. Firstly, welcome guests with a smile and genuine warmth. Secondly, take their coats and get them seated quickly. And finally, bring them the menus, some bread and a drink.

A top Scottish chef once let me into the secret of his success. It involved three key steps. Firstly, welcome guests with a smile and genuine warmth. Secondly, take their coats and get them seated quickly. And finally, bring them the menus, some bread and a drink.

With all that sorted, everything else would be fine he told me. Just as you never get a second chance to make a first impression, he believed the first couple of minutes could seal the deal when it comes to the meal ahead. Get that bit right and you will be forgiven a so-so starter or a dodgy dessert. Keep people waiting at the door and then desperate for a glass of wine and you are already swimming against the tide of the experience ahead.

When you analyse the key steps, it is obviously a winning formula. We all want to feel welcome and the restaurant experience is about food and drink. Deliver all three in the first five minutes and you will be ahead of the game and free to focus on what comes next.

Given that, you have to wonder why anyone in the restaurant business thinks it is a good idea to try to be clever and do things differently.

The ‘no reservation’ rule is the most obvious example. Popular in fashionable London eating spots, it is a practise that has not yet really transferred to Scotland. Long may that be the case.

For restaurants, the advantages are obvious. They can dispense with receptionists and expensive online booking platforms while at the same time maximising bar takings as those in line order drinks. A queue also sends out a subliminal message: this place must be good.

For customers the only positive benefit is to the chronically disorganised who never get round to booking restaurants anyway and now have as much chance of a table as anyone else.

What is lost is that first flush of hospitality. Instead of being seated, chewing bread, sipping wine and perusing the menu, you are avoiding the drizzle and staring daggers as someone takes a bit too long to pay the bill and vacate a table.

Thankfully, ‘no reservation’ restaurants already seem like a fad and will hopefully soon be a thing of the past, but who thought they would succeed in the first place? Probably the same person who reckoned customers are incapable of looking after themselves. For that reason, approximately three minutes after delivering your meal to the table, the waiter or waitress is now required to return to the table and ask: ‘Is everything okay with your meal?’

The grumpy old man in me thinks, if I wanted okay food, I would have cooked myself. The point of going to a restaurant is to get something over and above that. Plus if it was less than okay, would I be daft enough to just sit here passively eating it without saying a word? Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, like everyone else, I smile weakly and nod that it is fine, thank you very much.

To this list of restaurant rules you can add, staff not trying to take an order without a notepad. Remembering a list of dishes is actually not that impressive but if you get it wrong, it is less than unimpressive.

Topping up wine glasses every couple of minutes is another eating out irritant. We know the chef wants to sell more booze because that has a bigger margin, but we can fill our own glasses, it’s not tricky.

All this proves, when it comes to the restaurant eating out experience, less is always more. If the front of house welcome is good and the chef does his job, then everyone will be happy. But asking us if we are every five minutes won’t make us more so.