Waiters of a different sort outside Chin Chin in Flinders Lane. Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
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Veneet Bist decides to have dinner with two workmates. Instead of picking up the phone and booking a table, the 26-year-old accountant climbs the narrow stairs of popular no-bookings Mexican restaurant Mamasita.
He's been here twice before, late at night, but right now it's peak hour – Friday, close to 6pm. Because his friends are late he agrees to a call-back from the restaurant, which estimates a table will be available in about an hour.
Bist has just joined the growing queue to eat out in Melbourne.
Of 270 Melbourne metropolitan restaurants with full reviews in this year's Good Food Guide, nearly 20 have restrictions on bookings, with bookings usually available only to groups of six or more. It's a trend unlikely to go away soon, says hospitality insider and Fairfax Media contributor Tony Eldred.
Eldred cites rising city rents, shrinking profit margins and increased foot traffic in the so-called "golden square" – a precinct bounded by Flinders Lane, Spring, La Trobe and Swanston streets – as major factors in the rise of the no-bookings phenomenon. Rather than charging more for meals, he says, these mid to upper mid-level restaurants rely on high table turnover to survive.
"You can quite easily pay half a million dollars a year rent for a restaurant in the CBD," says Eldred. "You've got to sell a lot of food and beverage just to cover the rent."
According to Eldred, rent should equate to no more than about 8 per cent of annual turnover, which means a restaurant like the one mentioned needs to be turning over about $4 million a year to remain viable.
At city restaurant Chin Chin in Flinders Lane, those waiting for a table call-back can wet their whistle in the restaurant's downstairs bar, Go Go. It's an arrangement that suits the diners as well as the proprietor, Chris Lucas, who says while no-bookings restaurants may not be for everybody, they can work for younger people, who don't mind waiting if they can save some money.
"There's horses for courses," he says. "In order to create restaurants that are affordable you need to have volume and you need to be able to cut your costs. Reservation systems are inherently expensive. Our restaurants have allowed many more people, especially younger people, to enjoy quality food at an affordable price, in accessible environments."
Back at Mamasita, Bist notices a missed call. Fortunately, the restaurant calls patrons twice before it tries someone else. By the time he and his friends sit down it's an hour and 20 minutes since he first climbed the stairs (if only they had arrived together, they would have been seated immediately).
Mamasita co-owner Matt Lane says your best bet for less queue time is on Monday and Tuesday nights. Also, tables of two get turned around much faster, although the call-back service is only available to groups of three or more.
"Very rarely are groups required to wait longer than an hour," says Lane. "It all comes down to what time they get in to leave their number with the host."
In the end, Bist found the meal at Mamasita "quite good" and he was impressed by the knowledge of the staff. But "I'd prefer if you could just book", he says.
The Age Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on August 30 from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99.