Give My Table Away

Dear Helena,

If a restaurant calls you to confirm your reservation, do you have to call them back if you want to keep it? And if you want to cancel a reservation at a hot-spot restaurant, how late can you do it? Is one hour before considered poor manners? Or is it like an appointment with your shrink, where 24 hours ahead is de rigueur? Also, if they ask for a credit card number, can they charge you for a late cancellation? —Fickle Diner

Dear Fickle Diner,

Some restaurants will cancel reservations if you don’t confirm by a certain time, such as noon on the day of a dinner reservation. If this is the case, they will mention it in their messages and will make multiple attempts to contact you. Deborah Torres, a reservationist at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, says: “We call all the numbers the customer has given us, we email them, and if we know where they’re staying, we’ll call there too.” Other restaurants will hold the reservation, even if you don’t call them back. Either way, if you can make it, you might as well call; otherwise, they will keep bugging you.

If you can’t make it to dinner, you must call the restaurant as soon as you realize this. The worst thing you can do is not bother to contact them at all. “Someone who was enthusiastic about coming is cheated out of a reservation,” says Sarah Carron, manager of wd-50 in New York. “Your table sits empty for 25 minutes while the restaurant waits for you to arrive; and then if we fill the table, the reservation schedule is out of whack.”

Some hot restaurants have no penalty for last-minute cancellations. Carron says: “We understand that everyone is busy, work runs late, and baby-sitters flake.” Unlike simply not showing up, calling and telling them you’re not coming shortly before you’re supposed to arrive doesn’t hurt the restaurant much. The staff just fills your table with walk-ins or people on the waitlist.

But some upscale restaurants do punish flaky behavior with a fee. The exact policy varies. Charlie Trotter’s charges $100 per person for canceling after 12 p.m. on the day of the reservation (it also charges you if you reduce the number of people in your party). But the fee is not always this draconian. Robert Coffing, general manager of Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, says when customers cancel with less than 24 hours’ notice, the restaurant simply charges their credit card for a $50 gift certificate per person. Many restaurants only demand a late-cancellation fee if the reservation is for a large party. The reservationist should tell you what the restaurant’s policy is at the time he or she takes your credit card number. If he or she does, the restaurant can lawfully charge you, according to a representative of MasterCard.

If a reservationist asks for your card number but doesn’t mention any fees, it’s likely he or she is doing it purely for psychological effect. “We don’t do anything with the information,” says wd-50’s Carron. “But people are more responsible about canceling if you have their credit card details.”

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