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Monday, December 6, 2021

London’s hottest restaurants have a table shortage – and here’s how to game the system

Getting a table comes down to four words, says Charles Pullan, manager of the A-list’s favourite Italian The River Café: “Be kind and considerate.” Which doesn’t mean love-bombing the staff with money. “A generous tip is always well received but being polite to the staff goes much further,” says Langan’s CEO Graziano Arricale. 

Being considerate doesn’t just involve a smile and some small talk, however. Nothing is likely to land you on a bookings blacklist faster than being a serial canceller. “We use tech to profile our customers not only in terms of frequency but also cancellations,” says Simon Kirkham, operations director of Hutong. “We keep a record of no-shows, so this wouldn’t endear you when calling up for a last-minute table.”

Money talks (sometimes)

While Adorno, Norman and Rose all agree that attempting to bung the maître d’ 20 quid in return for a table is a no-no tantamount to bribery, not all restaurants are so incorruptible, although no one involved will go on record as saying so. 

“You can easily get a table if the restaurant knows that you are going to spend a lot of money,” my dining Deep Throat tells me. “That could be Middle Eastern customers who might not drink but will order four tins of caviar rather than one, football players who will ask for the most expensive things on the menu or City folk who will go big on prestige wine.” 

Pay someone else to do the hard work

Rather than splurging on a blow-out meal, however, enlisting the services of a concierge is likely to make your money go further in the long run. One table at each service at Le Comptoir Robuchon, for instance, is reserved for clients of American Express’ Platinum Card. Membership costs £575 a year and customers also have access to reservations at the likes of Gymkhana, Ikoyi and Marcus as well as money-can’t-buy chef-led experiences. 

Restaurants are the most-requested category at Quintessentially, the concierge service where annual membership starts at £5,000. Benefits include being front of the queue for last-minute tables, bespoke experiences such as virtual masterclasses with the likes of two-Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong and, most temptingly, pre-access reservations before the general public at high-profile new openings. 

“Many top restaurants will keep a table or two free,” says Emyr Thomas, the founder of Bon Vivant, where the £5,000 annual membership grants access to a personal concierge. “They know that not everybody books way in advance, especially celebrities or high-powered execs. I have spent years building up a black book of contacts to call at short notice to secure a table for the right clients.”

Stay regular

Ultimately, as Thomas says, loyalty is the fundamental secret to securing a last-minute table, and nothing is as likely to foster that except becoming a regular at a restaurant. Langan’s, for instance, has a hotline for what Arricale calls “close friends who get to know us”. 

“Our regular clientele supports us all year,” echoes Robuchon’s Virginie Bigand, whose most frequent diner eats at the restaurant twice a week, every week. “Our waiters know their habits and preferences and that is why our regulars return. The loyalty of clients is the best thing in this business and we will always do our best to find them a table.”

Building up that sort of relationship takes months, if not years, which may be no help this December, but once established will be a gift that keeps giving. Afterall, a good restaurant isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life. 

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