HK$3,500 for a no-show: Hong Kong restaurants try to make reservations stick

Fed up with diners cancelling or not turning up, restaurants in the world's dining capitals demand reconfirmation of reservations and punish late changes and no-shows

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 3:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 8:37pm

On a recent trip to New York I was looking forward to dinner at the Gramercy Tavern, an institution for nearly 21 years. I'd made the booking online, setting my alarm for the minute it would become available: 28 days ahead, 10am East Coast time. When the day came though I was surprised to receive an email at midday informing me my reservation for that evening had been cancelled.

Taking a closer look at the confirmation email I noticed I'd been required to call the restaurant before noon to reconfirm my reservation. Nothing bar a freak accident would have stopped me from going, but the restaurant wasn't taking any chances.

"This policy has become necessary due to the proliferation of services that make multiple reservations and guests who make reservations and have no intention of cancelling," says the Gramercy Tavern's spokeswoman. "No-shows have a detrimental impact on the industry and this system has been put in place to protect the restaurant."

Other restaurants in cities from London to Sydney have similar policies (although some say they "reserve the right to cancel" rather than steadfastly cancelling your booking if they haven't heard from you).

Matt Moran's restaurants in Australia couldn't be more upfront. When you book online a pop-up window states: "We will contact you 48 hours prior to confirm. If this does not occur please call us. We reserve the right to cancel any unconfirmed reservations."

Restaurant reservations have become a complicated business. When going out to eat was a special occasion, things were a lot simpler - diners made a booking and turned up. Now, with people eating out more and so many restaurants to choose from, it's not unusual for diners to book a handful of places for the same evening and then decide on the day where to go. Add concierge services and internet booking platforms to the mix and the problem is compounded.

Customers sometimes don't bother to cancel or simply forget. The obligatory "we'll hold your table for 15 minutes" policy in Hong Kong is indicative of the no-show problem.

Neither can the blame be placed entirely on internet reservations: in the US booking platforms prevent diners from reserving multiple restaurants for the same time and ban serial no-showers.

The most exclusive restaurants around the world can insist on a credit card number with the booking and require a 72-hour cancellation notice otherwise a US$100 fee per person is applied.

The three-star Michelin, Sushi Shikon in Sheung Wan, has a strict approach. Following a cooling off period of 24 hours, any cancellation incurs a HK$500 fee (although dates can be changed). And cancellations made within 72 hours of the dining date are charged at HK$1,250 per person. On top of that, cancellations or date changes on the actual day of dining, as well as no-shows, fewer people showing up than the number reserved for or late arrivals of more than one hour incur a charge of the full omakase price (HK$3,500).

"There is a strict cancellation policy, but thank you for understanding that this is because the fresh ingredients for each guest's meal are flown in from Japan and we have very limited seating," Sushi Shikon's website states.

Foodie Genevieve Clayton, who dines out in the city four to five times a week, says the restaurant's policy fails to recognise that diners have different priorities. "Something could come up, you know?"

Yet some restaurateurs are going further still. From this month The Clove Club in London will begin charging diners in advance of their meal when they book the tasting menu. The team has joined Tock, an American bookings system created by Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas. Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se are also set to use Tock later this year.

No-shows ... are a problem in the industry. Another issue is when tables of eight arrive as a five or a table of four arriving as a three or a two.
Isaac McHale of London's Clove Club

"No-shows was one of the reasons," says The Clove Club's chef Isaac McHale. "They are a problem in the industry. Another issue is when tables of eight arrive as a five or a table of four arriving as a three or a two."

McHale says he hasn't heard of any other London restaurants joining Tock as yet, "but I am sure they are watching closely".

Chef and media consultant Jason Black is sceptical that the Tock system could work in Hong Kong as there is a resistance to internet booking here, but adds: "We have been programmed to accept online bookings for flights and movie tickets and happily pay in advance, but for restaurants, people balk. That seems illogical to me. I think there is a lack of respect and also an oversupply of restaurants."

The no reservation policy - particularly popular among restaurateurs in Hong Kong - is a way of doing away with no-shows altogether. However, a forerunner of the policy, Yardbird, says that's not why they did it. "Yardbird is inspired by Japanese izakayas where you wait, drink, wait, drink, eat and hang out. To maintain this style of dining we had to remove the formality of bookings," says co-owner Lindsay Jang.

"It can be a pain, but I guess if you are anticipating a long wait it's part of the package," says Clayton, adding she would avoid a place with a no reservations policy if she were organising a meal for a big group.

Similarly, Loh Lik Peng the Singapore-based restaurateur behind chefs Jason Atherton and Andre Chiang, says the no reservation policy in place at several of his outlets is more to do with the concept - casual, walk-in tapas or barbecue bars - than discouraging no shows. "I think there are other ways such as a credit card policy or calling them on the day to confirm. We do have these policies in our formal restaurants."

Therein lies the problem. Diners may be prepared to pay in advance for show-stopping restaurants such as The French Laundry, but not for the rest.

But as Black says: "What the industry needs is consistency. If all restaurants started charging a deposit, people wouldn't feel peeved about it."

For this story and more, see the Life pages in section C of the Post on May 8