Yesterday, Michelin-starred Shoreditch restaurant The Clove Club announced it will replace traditional bookings with tickets — we’ve got some reservations.
From April onwards diners at The Clove Club will have to purchase tickets for their meal in advance, paying up-front for their food in the same way they would for a gig or a performance at the theatre. Any no-shows or cancellations with less than 24 hours’ notice will forfeit £65 per head.
There are several restaurants in major cities in the US which operate such policies, but this is the first time it’s been tried in the UK. With no-shows being a major source of revenue loss for the restaurant industry, the appeal of such a system is understandable — but at what cost? If ticketed restaurants catch on, it could be devastating for London’s relatively fledgling dining scene.
Our first concern is one of spontaneity — tickets will kill it. How many times in the last month would you have taken the plunge and pre-paid for dinner for an exact number of people, knowing that you’d lose your cash if plans changed or someone pulled out? Probably significantly fewer times than you ended up eating out impromptu post a couple pints with your mates, or after work when you couldn’t face Tesco Express.
Then there’s the issue of cost. Of course, there’s no necessity for the tickets to be expensive, but they do lend themselves towards a ‘set price’ meal rather than a la carte and in many restaurants this equates to lengthy — and pricey — tasting menus. Inevitably, those with more cash to burn will also be less put-off by the risk of losing money should they have to cancel at the last minute.
And there is a darker side to consider. These ticketing systems have the capability of varying the price of tickets according to demand and at premium times, in much the same way that hotels, airlines and the controversial cab company Uber does.
This would mean that diners on a budget might feel forced to eat inconveniently early or late to save some pounds, and that in some restaurants a peak time Saturday night dinner could become the preserve of the rich. No longer would advance booking guarantee you the spot you want, you'd need to flash the cash. Such a system — at its worst — could lead to a time-sensitive financial apartheid in London’s restaurants.
When considering the potential impact of ticketing, it’s worth looking at the relative recency of London’s inclusive food scene. Not much more than ten years ago most of the capital’s well-respected restaurants were stuffy affairs with starched white tablecloths, snooty waiters, intimidating wine lists and prices out of range for most people on anything but a special occasion. The alternative was stodgy pub grub, chains, curry houses and cafs. With some exceptions, dining out was a minority sport.
It took restaurants like Polpo and Burger & Lobster to prove that good food and good service could come at a good price, and that you didn’t need to be rich to eat out on a whim on a Tuesday night. Numerous gastropubs across town now offer affordable meals of a very high standard, and the march of street food on the capital has opened our eyes to seriously great grub without the scary price tag.
Being a foodie is currently more affordable than ever, but strict, off-putting ticketing rules and systems designed to capitalise on prime seats risks making eating out less accessible and pushing our restaurant scene back to the dark ages.
There are some positives. It’s usually the most forward-thinking and creative restaurants which have the biggest outgoings, and often these places don’t have that many covers either. The cost to these restaurants of no-shows can be substantial, and eliminating this would — theoretically — allow them to pour more resources into developing dishes, hiring talent and buying the best quality ingredients.
But great restaurants are nothing without a great restaurant scene. Or if only tourists and the rich can afford to eat in them. Tickets might seem like a winner for restaurants, but in the long-term we reckon it will be London that loses out.
Let's throw the book(ings) at them before it's too late.
Are you a restaurateur or a restaurant-goer? What do you think of tickets versus bookings? Let us know in the comments below.