On Monday, a copy of Rogue 24’s two-page reservation agreement was posted on Eater DC. The agreement included a 72-hour cancellation policy and a camera and cell-phone ban along with questions about dietary restrictions and allergies. Reaction on the Internet was swift and far-reaching. To many, it seems, the idea of signing a contract in order to enjoy an evening out smacks of elitism and pretention. But a quick survey of other local tasting menu-focused high-end dining rooms shows that such reservation agreements are hardly unique to R.J. Cooper’s 52-seat Blagden Alley restaurant. In fact, many of the city’s most tony tables come with some variation of the dining agreement, and their restaurants defend them as a simple matter of economics and survival in the world of razor-thin fine dining profit margins. In addition to engaging their future guests early to inquire about special needs and dining expectations, Restaurant Eve, CityZen and the Inn at Little Washington all have cancellation policies that include fees for late cancellations and no-shows.
“For restaurants like ours, it is an absolute necessity,” says Restaurant Eve co-owner Meshelle Armstrong. Guests at the Alexandria restaurant’s tasting room get an e-mailed reservation agreement, which includes a $50-per-person fee for cancellations later than 72-hours before the reservation.
“It’s never our intention to charge people, though,” Armstrong says. “It leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. No one wants to key in that credit card number, but there has to be responsibility on everyone’s end. Otherwise our table just sits there. No one is just walking in to fill it.”
Eve, like other restaurants, buys meat and produce and staffs its dining room based on the number of reservations.
Across the river in Southwest, skipping out on a reserved table at CityZen will also cost you $50 a head, though manager Jarad Slipp is quick to point out that the restaurant does its best to be understanding and compassionate. “We never over-book tables ever, for any reason,” he says, explaining the policy, “and it’s a two-way street. If you book a reservation, you expect to have a table. So if a table doesn’t show up, we get hosed.” But if extenuating circumstances do come up, a courtesy call to the restaurant goes a long way, and it’s likely to get your $50 fee waived. “It’s super rare that I ever charge anybody,” Slipp says, “unless you’re a table of six at 7 on a Saturday night that decides to no-show.”
For all of these restaurants though, early communication with future diners is more about transparency than it is about blackmailing guests into showing up. “There needs to be communication,” says Armstrong. “Our agreement includes how long the dinner will take, so people can plan around babysitters and rides. The expectations at this level are so high that you have to be able to fulfill them. There can’t be any mysteries.”
Even before it was revised following the exposure on Eater, much of Rogue 24’s form was a questionnaire for the diner, including queries about food allergies and whether any table members were vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan. To Cooper, this is the most important part of the form.
“We’re not asking for people to jump through hoops,” he argues. “We’re just asking for information so we can provide the best experience to dine here.” The advanced notice allows the restaurant to create unique menus for guests with different tastes and needs. “On our first night we had a vegan,” says Cooper, “and we served her 24 courses. She filled out the form a week in advance, and we were able to write a 24-course menu and test the recipes and were able to give her an experience that is conducive to what we are trying to do here.”
A final sticking point in the agreement for many online commenters was the general ban on cameras and cell phones. While neither CityZen nor the Inn at Little Washington discourages the taking of calls or pictures, Restaurant Eve stands with Rogue 24 on the no side of the issue.
“It’s unmannerly. It’s as basic as that.” declares Armstrong, “It’s not that I care if people are taking photos of the food: It’s for the sole fact that we want people to enjoy the food and enjoy their company.”
Cooper clearly agrees: “In my opinion, a lot of value is lost when people sit down and pull out their cell phone and cameras.You can use your phone in our salon. You can go into my back kitchen and use your cell phone. I don’t care. But at the table, have polite respect for everyone around you.”