No reservations: how to get a table at Australia's top restaurants

Author: michael harden
Photography: chris chen

The day's financial pages might brim with less than inspiring news, but if the action at Australia's top tables is any guide, even those who fear the end is nigh want to face the apocalypse well fed. At elite restaurants across the country, waiting lists for a Saturday night table for four stretch as far as six months into the future, and many of these restaurants employ full-time teams just to cope with the demand for reservations.

On 5 August, calling anonymously, we contacted the restaurants that rank in the top 50 in the GT 2012 Australian Restaurant Guide to request a booking for four people for 8pm on a Saturday (see the winners of our 2012 Restaurant Awards here).

At Tetsuya's, the restaurant that pioneered the "permanent waiting list" phenomenon in Australia, Margarete Lethorn heads a team of five full-time staff who confirm bookings, take reservation enquiries by telephone and online, and deal with the many cases of special pleading for the next available table.

"We've never done an exact count of how many calls we get in a day," Lethorn says. "But it's always in the hundreds, and when there's a special event or we're mentioned in the media you always know, because the number gets noticeably bigger."

Curious about that "special pleading" she mentions? It seems people will go to great lengths to get a reservation: Lethorn has seen and heard everything from forged confirmation forms to begging to customers who say they'll sit in the driveway or bring their own table.

Quay general manager John Fink, meanwhile, says his staff have encountered people turning up pretending to have a reservation at Quay, the restaurant that tops our Toughest Tables list.

Quay operations manager Kylie Ball says media exposure thanks to the MasterChef juggernaut, on top of Quay's high rankings in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list and the GT Top 100, forced a complete overhaul of Quay's reservations system. Within 24 hours of the appearance of Peter Gilmore's snow egg dessert on national television, Quay's website received more than 100,000 hits and nearly 500 email requests for reservations. The following day, the phone rang so constantly it had to be moved from the restaurant's front desk to the office.

Celebrity garnered via television and through appearances on restaurant lists certainly goes a way towards explaining why some restaurants on our Toughest Tables list have lengthy wait times, but it's not the only reason it's so hard to secure a table at many of our top-end diners on a Saturday night.

David Chalke, a research analyst for the social monitoring organisation AustraliaSCAN, believes the reason many of the restaurants at the top end of town continue to do such good business is that they cater to a section of society that's "less scared by the headlines".

"A lot of top-end dining is funded by business," Chalke says. "And these are the people who read the business pages more thoroughly, are more informed about the real risks in America and the Euro zone and are just not as uneasy about future financial prospects as much of middle Australia."

But Chalke also acknowledges that food has become more important in people's lives, that it's become a fashionable way of showing "love, connection, sharing".

"People are certainly trimming back on some things… but the breaking of bread in good restaurants seems to be one place where people are still prepared to spend money."

Andrew McConnell, owner and chef at Melbourne restaurants Cutler & Co., Cumulus Inc. and Golden Fields, says he's actually noticed people spending more over the last 12 months. He concedes, however, "I can only speculate and talk from my own experience," and he doesn't believe things are rosy everywhere.

"I think if you look at the restaurants that have healthy advance bookings, they're only a small percentage of the industry as a whole. Many places are just not doing it that easy."

Rockpool's Neil Perry believes diners are picking their restaurants with greater care than ever. "They're investing money where they're getting the most value and the best experience," he says.

With people willing to wait up to six months for some restaurants, you'd have to concede he has a point. Best make that booking now.

Four at 8pm: the toughest tables

1. Quay, NSW
Seats: 130
Waiting List: 22 weeks
Available: 4 February

2. Royal Mail Hotel, Vic
Seats: 37
Waiting List: 19 weeks
Available: 17 December

3. Attica, Vic
Seats: 50
Waiting List: 13 weeks
Available: 5 November

4 Cutler & Co, Vic
Seats: 100
Waiting List: 12 weeks
Available: 29 October

5 Tetsuya's, NSW
Seats: 100
Waiting List: 12 weeks
Available: 29 October

6. Bécasse, NSW
Seats: 26
Waiting List: 11 weeks
Available: 22 October

7 Rockpool Bar & Grill, WA
Seats: 160
Waiting List: 10 weeks
Available: 15 October

8. Aria, NSW
Seats: 180
Waiting List: 9 weeks
Available: 8 October

9. Marque, NSW
Seats: 50
Waiting List: 8 weeks
Available: 1 October

10. Vue de Monde, Vic
Seats: 75
Waiting List: 8 weeks
Available: 1 October

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