Back in the sweet, simpler times of 2012, Pete Wells only occasionally had to hand over his credit card details before a meal, but by the end of this month he will have reviewed five such places this year. The evidence is anecdotal, but Wells spots an uptick in restaurants that force diners to pay in advance or fork over their credit card numbers when they reserve their table, to hold them accountable for last-minute cancellations. Wells blames that uptick on the no-showers, not the restaurants who are trying to stay afloat by filling their tables.
But then he comes out with this earth-shattering tidbit: "The dark secret of cancellation fees is that almost no one has to pay them," says Wells. Here's a partial list of the evidence:
1) It's unpleasant for everyone, diners and restaurant owners alike: "All the restaurant operators I've spoken with who have a cancellation policy claim to hate the practice. And they should. The words ‘cancellation fee' ...make you think of your cellphone provider and cable company."
2) Some restaurants just pretend to take down your information, according to Tse Wei Lim, the owner of a restaurant in Somerville, MA. "I've spoken to fellow restaurateurs, and more than one has told me they will ask for a credit card number on the phone if it's a large party, pretend to write it down, then they throw it away."
3) Keith McNally doesn't have the heart to charge people who don't show up at Balthazar and his other places: "Although we take credit card numbers for parties of five or more at my restaurants, we never actually charge the customer for not showing up...it's difficult to have the heart to do it."
4) The Torrisi team, meanwhile, claims it requires a fee for cancellations at Dirty French, Carbone, and Santina, any time after noon the day of, but actually gives a grace period until 5 p.m., "with the exception of something really extreme like a 10-person reservation, something that really is going to screw up the entire night," according to Jeff Zalaznick.
This revelation, however, doesn't keep the critic from complaining: "It does not matter if the cancellation fee is never collected...a bit of the romance of going out to eat has already been lost."
Keep in mind, these truths don't apply to places that charge for the full meal in advance with a ticketing system like Tock, that's a different story.