How cooks are preventing touts that cost for tables at prime eating places

The Devonshire is a restaurant and pub that sits on the edge of London’s Soho, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Piccadilly Circus. It opened last year, and is very good indeed.

So good, in fact, that the next available booking for lunch is on Monday, June 3. Although by the time you read this, that rare noon slot will be long gone.

As for dinner… forget it. To have even the smallest chance of bagging a table, and feasting upon their scallops, lamb cutlets and beef cheek and Guinness suet pudding (Dear God, that pudding), you’ll have to be by your computer at 10.30 every Thursday, and pray you move fast enough to grab a few of the 3,000 seats that are released weekly. 

All I can say is good luck.

Want a table for four at The Devonshire tonight? It could be yours for just £90, a website claims

Want a table for four at The Devonshire tonight? It could be yours for just £90, a website claims

But there is another way. If you’re willing to pay. Yup, Appointment Trader is a website that allows you to buy and sell restaurant reservations for all of London’s most sought-after tables. Food and drink very much not included. You want a table for four at The Devonshire tonight? Yours, they claim, for a mere £90.

It works via a network of bots (computers that act far quicker than humans in grabbing a reservation when it goes live), restaurant employees (on the sly), hotel concierges, and dedicated geeks who spend all day and night glued to their screen, fingers clattering their keyboards.

Appointment Trader was founded in 2021 by Jonas Frey, a 33-year-old American annoyed at not being able to skip the queue when booking a reservation to renew his driving licence. ‘I thought, “How is it possible that I can’t pay for a spot in line?” ’ he told The New Yorker magazine last month. And so he came up with Appointment Trader, which promises access to everything, at a price, from private shopping in Paris to Miami nightclub entry.

So does it actually work? The website is a garish, glitchy mess, overcrowded, cheap-looking and most definitely not easy on the eye. But I wade my way through it, to secure a booking for two last week at The Devonshire at 8pm.

My ‘suggested’ first bid is £40. Before I start, though, I tell Oisin Rogers, one of The Devonshire’s owners, exactly what I’m going to do.

‘I’d be very surprised if they could do it,’ he tells me. ‘We have had some companies mass-book tables under “placeholder” names and we just cancel them all. I don’t think you can actually buy a reservation here through this website. We’re not in the business of helping scalpers make a business out of selling something completely intangible.’

Steak is on the menu at the Devonshire in Soho, which opened last year and has proved a hit

Steak is on the menu at the Devonshire in Soho, which opened last year and has proved a hit

The pub near Piccadilly - which releases 3,000 seats weekly - also offers scallops with bacon

The pub near Piccadilly – which releases 3,000 seats weekly – also offers scallops with bacon

It turns out that I can buy a booking at The Devonshire. But not at his Soho classic, rather it’s rather less famous namesake in Balham. Oh dear, they got the two mixed up. Not a good start.

But there’s little doubt it is possible to bag same-day tables at the likes of Core by Clare Smyth (where the next free table for two on their website is at noon on June 6), The River Cafe (9pm on June 3) or afternoon tea at Claridge’s (3.15pm on July 1). With prices ranging from £138 (Novikov, Core and, somewhat incongruously, The Ivy in bloody Brighton) to £174 (Zuma).

As you might imagine, though, Appointment Trader is not exactly adored by restaurateurs. ‘I couldn’t care less about this site,’ says Rogers. ‘We’re in the business of making a simple contract, between our guests and us, that they will come and have dinner. I don’t think that’s something that somebody can trade.’

Charles Pullan, the front of house maestro at The River Cafe agrees. ‘It’s very hard to police it, but it also goes against the standard fair play of booking a table. It also means we have little or no comeback on no-shows. But I know that some people are making a load of money. High demand has created a new market.’

Adam Hyman, founder of Code Hospitality, and an expert on such matters, goes further still: ‘I personally feel it should be illegal. These third-party platforms are selling a commodity that is not theirs to sell in the first place!

‘There are always going to be people with lots of money who want to pay for access but that should be down to the restaurant to decide. It also attracts a certain type of clientele… exactly the sort the best restaurateurs don’t want in their restaurant in the first place. Restaurants should be egalitarian.’

Some, though, have seen it all before. ‘Interestingly,’ says Jeremy King, that legendary restaurateur behind the white-hot Arlington (formerly Le Caprice, and which curiously doesn’t make it on to Appointment Trader), ‘this is no new phenomenon.

‘Back in the 1990s, when The Ivy in Covent Garden [then owned by King and his partner Chris Corbin] was at its peak, City boys would often send out emails on a Friday saying, “What am I bid for a table for 4@9:00pm at The Ivy this evening?” In many ways, American Express was in on the act by promising access to restaurants if their clients upgraded to Platinum or indeed Centurion subscriptions.’

I have to admit to using The Ivy’s good name in vain, way back in 2000, when I helped start a concierge company called Quintessentially. Every time my cousin, (and co-founder) Ben Elliot and I did publicity to promote it, we’d promise that we could get you in at The Ivy, then the hottest table in town. Of course, we could manage about one a week, at very best. We’d get the most awful tongue-lashing from Des McDonald, their then CEO. ‘You posh little f******,’ he’d bellow. And that was him being polite. Still, it certainly flogged a few more memberships.

And although some restaurants do give the great and the good a special number, which almost guarantees a table any time (at Keith McNally’s Balthazar and Pastis, in New York, for example), you shouldn’t have to shell out your hard-earned cash, just for the chance to pay again for your food and drink.

Knowing the owners, maître d’s or chefs certainly helps. Concierges, at the likes of Claridge’s, The Connaught, The Dorchester or Mandarin Oriental will certainly be able to help too. But not even Harry Styles (or Mick Jagger) could stroll into The Devonshire, say, on a rammed Thursday night, and expect a table for six.

How, then, can you secure a decent table at a decent time? Don’t, for God’s sake, strut up to the maître d’ and, with a nudge and a wink, tuck £20 into his top pocket. Nor book, claiming you’re Brad Pitt, or Kate Moss. You may bag the table, but certainly won’t get to sit down.

The Ivy in Covent Garden was at its peak in the 1990s - and was targeted by bidders for tables

The Ivy in Covent Garden was at its peak in the 1990s – and was targeted by bidders for tables

‘Be flexible with when you want to go,’ advises Hyman, ‘try a walk-in, because you’ll be surprised how often a restaurant has had a cancellation or can squeeze you in. And it should go without saying . . . be polite!’

Rogers agrees. ‘Walk in at noon or 4.30 and be ready to wait an hour.’ If you really love a place, try booking your next table before you leave.

The best restaurateurs don’t seem unduly worried. ‘I think that restaurants will start being more diligent obtaining credit card details and applying penalties more stringently,’ says King.

But he fears something else entirely. There’s a worrying new trend whereby certain websites (Tableo, for example), will only make tables available to those people prepared to commit to a minimum spend. To combat, as King puts it, ‘the advance bookers who only have the bare minimum and water in order to get Instagram credibility.

‘I fear it is only a matter of time before restaurants succumb to “dynamic pricing” like airlines, hotels and even theatres.’

Meaning you’ll be paying more for your bang bang chicken, risi e bisi or lamb chops at more popular times. Perish the thought.

In the meantime, patience. Sure, you can splash the cash on some upstart website. But as Sam Hart, CEO of the Harts Group (who own Quo Vadis, Barrafina and El Pastor, among others) points out, it’s a ‘lose, lose’ situation.

‘Nobody wins save the tout,’ he sighs. ‘Cash doesn’t go to the restaurants, and ordinary customers don’t benefit, as all the places are booked by bots. The bots that snap up all the reservations, meaning they make reservations even more difficult to get. Which just makes things worse.’

Never forget, though, that restaurants are about succour and good cheer, and the joys of the shared table. Rather than some half-witted attempt to show off on social media.

As Oisin Rogers, of The Devonshire, so rightly says: ‘All we want is for people to come to the restaurant and have some nice food and drinks and enjoy it.’ Amen to that.