A successful ‘no reservations' policy means you'll need to learn line management
When the L'Atelier concept came to London, it opened with a ‘no bookings' policy normal to chains. That changed only a few weeks after they'd opened on West Street, WC2, because it wasn't suited to the low-footfall location. Nevertheless, Yann Chevris, the Regional Operations Director, is well-versed in how to handle waiting customers. "The most important thing is to make people comfortable and be honest with them. It's no good saying the wait is half an hour if it's an hour and a half." L'Atelier has a bar where diners can wait to be seated, look at a menu and order, so they can make up time at the table, and Chevris knows that discussing the food on offer helps to pass the time. If the wait is going to be much longer, he takes names down and people are free to wander around and come back when a table is free. Chevris also negotiates with customers at tables who may be at the end of their meal. "As long as it's presented to them nicely, you can ask a table who may be lingering over a coffee if they would like to go up to the bar and enjoy a complimentary drink, the table becomes free and the diners should see it as a nice gesture, not that they have been kicked out. The other benefit is that you'll have a more buzzy room, the atmosphere will set the pace for people eating."
The Anchor and Hope in Waterloo has a ‘no reservations' policy that helps to retain a pub atmosphere, albeit in a pub that is well known for culinary excellence. The layout lends itself well to this as the bar has a larger capacity than the restaurant, and people can wait there for tables. Proprietor Robert Shaw strives to keep people happy and informed.
"We have a blackboard in the bar showing the menu that's constantly updated, though we quite often hear a collective sigh in the bar when something comes off. But it lets them know what's happening and see new things coming on.
If people have finished in the restaurant and are on drinks, we try to swap them with a table in the bar; if they've waited themselves they don't tend to mind. It's nice to be able to decide that you want to eat somewhere and go that day rather than having to plan months in advance, even if it means you have to wait a while."
Sam and Eddie Hart's newly opened tapas bar in Soho, Barrafina, has proved a big hit. This has resulted in long lines forming – not what anyone would have hoped for at a simple dropin Spanish restaurant. "Almost straight after we opened we realised we had to do something about the people in the queue," says Sam Hart.
"It's flattering that people want to wait, but queuing for an hour and half for tapas is absurd.
If the wait's going to be that long we tell people they'd be better off going somewhere else and coming back on a different night.
We give people a realistic, or almost a pessimistic view of how long it's going to take so that we can meet it, or do better. There is a dedicated person who looks after those waiting and serves them drinks, and a short version of the menu has things they can nibble standing so they are at least fed and watered while they wait," he says. The queue at Barrafina is a physical one, a line along a ‘shelf'
inside the restaurant so people can see their progress, and it's opposite the kitchen so there is something to watch.
Ping Pong restaurants only take reservations for parties of eight or more, and Daniel Hegarty, Restaurant Manager of London's Great Marlborough Street branch, says they have three hostesses to look after people waiting. They offer teas and complimentary hot saki, and describe the wait in terms of the number of tables in front of a waiting group rather than guessing at the time.
At busy times they operate a 90 minute maximum on tables, after which they present the bill and feed the next lot.
Tips - It's for you…
Whether your restaurant is in town or country, part of your business is providing a bit of peace and quiet for your guests. Which is why many restaurants politely request that their guests limit their mobile phone usage ‘out of consideration for other guests'.
But no matter how draconian the ban, there will always be someone whose wife is about to go into labour, or is waiting for that crucial deal to be signed.
Rather than argue about it, at Gilpin Lodge in the Lake District (as peaceful oasis of civilised calm as you'll ever find), guests are offered a phone-sitting service. Simply leave your phone with reception and if that urgent call comes through, they'll let you know. No one else need hear a peep about it.