"No-reservations restaurants aren’t aimed at grown-ups": No-booking policy sparks row between restaurant owner and food critic

Stand in line or book ahead? Russell Norman and Joe Warwick go head to head on no-reservations restaurants...

Updated on 19 April 2021

It’s always the way, go against the grain and you’re going to get people grumbling that things were better as they were, and restaurants that operate no bookings policies are no different. Only really popularised in the last ten years, some people think that this confident stance means more chance of flexibility and grabbing a table on a whim, while others see it as a cocky way to treat loyal customers.

Whether you’re in team yes or team no, it’s not hard to see why some of the most popular London restaurants operate a strict walk-in policy. This way there’s no faff with no show diners, there’s the ability to cut off additional tables when the kitchen becomes overwhelmed, and essentially the restaurant holds all the power to keep their dining room full as long as punters will line up outside.

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The alternative, of course, is to charge diners before they’re arrive to ensure no empty seats, which isn’t always a popular move either. We spoke to two experts in the hospitality industry to get a gauge for why they might be for or against no booking policies in restaurants. To say the results were polarising is to put it politely, but we can’t deny that we love the passion and conviction with which each fight their case.

Still not sure whether you’re for or against not being able to book your favourite fanyc restaurant or even your local down the street? Let restauranteur and owner of Polpo Russell Norman try to convince you they’re no bad thing, before reading up on Joe Warwick’s (author and restaurant critic) case where he says policies like these “aren’t aimed at grown ups”. Once you’ve read up on both sides of the story it’s time to pick your side – for, or against? Let us know in the comments below.

Why walk in only restaurants are a good thing: Popular restaurants are hard to get into whether they take reservations or not, argues Polpo owner Russell Norman

The question I get asked more than any other as a restaurateur is: ‘Why don’t you take reservations?’

My answer surprises people: ‘We do take reservations.’ Of the five restaurants we operate, four take lunch bookings and you can book dinner at two of them. What people really want to know is why they can’t reserve a table for six on Friday night for Alice’s birthday. Well, it’s a fair question.

Casual neighbourhood eateries must do two things: be casual, and serve the neighbourhood. It is unlikely that a group of six will go into the West End on a whim for a meal at a place that does not take bookings. They will choose one where they can reserve. This allows the no-res place to serve diners who live, work or play in the area and will pop in on a whim.

One complaint is that not taking bookings is a trend and too many places are jumping on the bandwagon. But casual no-reservation diners such as Anchor & Hope, Barrafina, Vinoteca and Wagamama have been doing it for decades.

Long waits are frustrating. So I eat lunch at Spuntino because I know I can get a seat straight away, I avoid 1pm at Koya because it’s their busiest time and I head for Barrafina at 6pm to beat the queues. Popular restaurants are hard to get into whether they take reservations or not. Interestingly, the people who complain about the waits at Polpo, Pitt Cue Co or Bone Daddies often protest that they can’t get a booking at Dabbous or Balthazar

We need more places with a no-reservation policy so that choice is greater, queues are shorter and the power balance shifts towards the customer.

Finally, if you can, bend the rules. Some restaurants will make exceptions for regulars. I spoke to Ken Friedman about this. The Spotted Pig NYC (which he co-owns) famously does not take reservations and Ken was telling me that Bill Clinton is a regular. I asked Ken if Clinton waited his turn like everyone else. ‘Of course not, we sit him straight down.’ I asked him what he says to customers who complain that someone is jumping the queue. ‘I tell them that he’s the President of the United fucking States.’

Russell Norman is a restaurateur and the author of Polpo - A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)

Why walk in only restaurants are a bad thing: What little free time I have is far too precious to waste standing around waiting for a table, says food critic Joe Warwick

Like regular hangovers, fashion-forward trousers and learning new dance steps, the older I get, the less no-reservations restaurants appeal to me.

Having recently become a father, I’ve started to appreciate what little free time I have and that it’s far too precious to waste standing around waiting for a table when, with a little forward planning, I can turn up at a restaurant, sit down immediately and order. Show me a lengthy queue for a restaurant and I’ll show you a line of carefree souls who don’t have to rush back for babysitters and get up early the next morning. (Perhaps what I resent more than no-reservations restaurants are the lucky sods who still have the time to queue for them.)

If that makes it sound like spontaneity is no longer a part of my restaurant-going life, that’s because it’s not. Paternal responsibilities aside, when I review a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, to secure a table means turning up for dinner unpleasantly early, at the sort of time it’s served in an old people’s home, as opposed to being able to eat at a more civilised hour. Beyond that, when I eat out with friends or for business, time is always of the essence – why waste it?

Standing in a bar drinking is one of my favourite things, but only when it’s my choice to do so and when I get to pick where. As opposed to being forced to drink in the crowded holding pen-with-booze that is the typical restaurant bar, when what I really want is to sit down and get on with dinner. But restaurant operators love the idea as – along with not having to pay someone to answer the phone, or even bother to have a phone in some cases – their bar takings soar.

In short, no-reservations restaurants aren’t aimed at grown-ups. Forget the waffle about such outposts promoting fun-loving casual dining, refusing to take bookings is about selecting a younger audience, turning tables and increasing profits. It’s about making a business decision to effectively turn away anyone that hasn’t got the time or inclination to arse around for their supper. These days, that includes me.

Joe Warwick is a former restaurant critic for Metro and the author of Where Chefs Eat 

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