Top London restaurants sit ugly people at the back

I should know, I used to work in one


Have you ever gone to a restaurant and been told that there’s no tables available, when you can see one right in front of you? Perhaps you’ve been led down a flight of stairs or seated behind a metal girder in the back, instead of that nice table by the window?

According to Channel 4 documentary Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, swanky restaurants will give good-looking people preferential seating whilst ugly people are put out of sight. It sounds insane, but it does happen. I should know, I used to work in one of London’s trendiest restaurants.

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Most of the top London restaurants (the ones that will appear on the Guardian’s best eats) will have some sort of seating policy. When patrons arrive they will be sized up by the hostess on the door and will be seated, or in the most extreme cases not seated, depending on how they look. Or, failing that, how money they look.

I remember one time on a pretty quiet Saturday afternoon, three rather large ladies, one of whom was 8 months pregnant, along with a small infant, came in for late lunch. At least half the tables were unoccupied but instantly our hostess knew where they were going – straight to table 58. Why 58? Well, table 58 is placed in the back behind the rather large vintage salami cutter, meaning anyone sitting there is obscured from view. It sounds bad but it happens – people are far less likely toorder another plate of fritto misto when the lady in front looks like her water may break any second now.

That’s not to say that if you’re ugly you’ll be thrown so far in the back you might as well be eating in the kitchen. It’s less about whether you look good, more about whether you look money.

One Friday night, for example, we had a very good-looking girl come in, very dressed up, very smiley. The problem was though that she was with her mother, who wasn’t so glam. If someone’s out to dinner with their parents, it’ll be the parent buying, so judging how money the table is going to be is done on how money the mother is. In this case the mother look tired and was drably dressed, a clear backender. It was no surprise when we sat them down that she ordered “just a tap water please” as she stifled a yawn.

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Restaurant owners want to give the impression of success to their business. Being quirky and welcoming is all very well, but if you’re walking down the Strand and you see a restaurant filled with business parties eating on the company card then you’re going to assume the grub’s good.

That’s the winning formula there really – if you look successful then the restaurant you’re eating in looks successful. Where I used to work business parties and young couples sat in the front, old people and uglies in the back.

Often when the hostess is unable to make a decision on where to sit people she will seek out the manager for advice. Restaurant floors are busy, loud places meaning these discussions are unspoken – a nod of the manager’s head usually dictates where the customers in question will be seated.

Funnily enough we put groups of attractive women downstairs. Attractive women tend not to eat too much and while they may go heavy on the martinis, they never tend to order anything more than a starter. This doesn’t look good for business.

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Also not all business parties make it to the front. At the height of the Saturday rush once we had an obvious after-work party of three come in. Individually they all looked front table worthy, nice suits, well groomed. The hiccup here was that the party contained two men in their late sixties and a young woman in her early twenties. They were obviously not related and it made for a strange, if not slightly creepy sight. So we stuck them on table 58, a decision that seemed justified when I came back a little later and saw one of the men feeding the girl spaghetti, whilst the other old timer watched.

At the end of the day though we’re not laughing at you when your led to table 58. Frankly if we went to any other trendy gaff we’d be backenders like you too, we’re waiters after all. What’s more you’ll often find us lingering in the back section on a busy night, trying to catch a breather. We like you if you’re ugly or old – you’re so much less demanding.