I’m trying to book a table at a Sheffield restaurant when the chap on the phone asks for my debit card details: number, name and security code.
Hang on, I’m not seeking a room in a four star hotel, I’m planning a BYO dinner with garlic mushrooms and artichoke soup at the dinky little Barrett’s Bistro in Hutcliffe Wood.
Head chef Russell Housley is polite but insistent. It’s policy because the restaurant has been hit by no-shows, bookings who fail to turn up, and with only 24 seats it can ill afford the loss.
He’ll take £10 per person and deduct it from my bill when I pay, or take it out of my account if I don’t show up.
I can sympathise. In over 25 years covering the restaurant trade I have reported on this thoughtless practice time and again. It costs money.
Some years ago when the Bosworth brothers ran Rafters there were similar problems.
Like Barrett’s, there was little passing trade to fill empty tables at short notice.
When it happened again they waited until closing time then rang the number. “We said should we send the staff home yet?” remembers former boss Jamie Bosworth. “They were very apologetic.”
No-shows are not just a Sheffield problem. It happens all over. In the US chefs have taken to naming and shaming culprits on Twitter.
In Copenhagen, staff at Noma, one of the world’s top restaurants, posted a video on YouTube mocking customers who did the dirty.
This is the first time I’ve encountered taking card numbers in Sheffield and I’m worried about the security.
I’m later assured the info is punched straight into a Bluetooth phone and not left lying around on a piece of paper.
But it’s a strict rule not to announce I’m planning a visit so if this catches on I’ll be in trouble!
We call on spec the following week to find boss James Barrett has taken a break, leaving Russell in charge.
It’s just him. There’s no waitress so he has to take orders, cook, serve, answer the phone, wash up and doubtless collapse in a heap at the end of the evening.
“We have a waitress at weekends but because of the size of the business we have managed to do three years by running a very tight ship,” says James, the following week. The bookings policy is because they lost two tables of six plus one of eight since Christmas and several tables of four and six turned up as twos.
Remember that Barrett’s is bijou and this can wipe out a night’s profit. It’s not as if the place isn’t popular.
One chap on TripAdvisor complained it took four months to book a weekend table.
Apart from the food, another reason is that you can bring your own wine and don’t pay corkage if you finish by 7.30pm.
Even then there are customers who kick up a fuss. “One table of four brought six bottles and complained they were over time because of slow service. We let them off and they left a £15 tip!” says James.
There are two menus: the fixed price at two courses for £16.95, three for £19.95 served between 6 and 7.30pm and an à la carte, where three courses cost around £30, served from 7.30pm.
Normally they don’t overlap for ease of service but Russell, who had an inkling of who we were, let us eat from both.
My wife took the cheaper menu: a decent helping of creamed garlic mushrooms offset by homemade rosemary and garlic bread, a tasty if a little heavy twice baked cheese soufflé and a meritorious sticky toffee pudding with banana ice cream.
Like everything else here, they make the ice cream themselves.
I started with a soup, Jerusalem artichoke velouté, rich enough before the truffle oil and toasted fruit bread croûtes, although I think the parmesan beignet was missing. My main course of duck (£17.95) had the breast satisfyingly cooked to bloody pink with the skin crisped, then segmented, served with a tower of well-flavoured pressed and shredded leg confit.
The sauce was bigarade (they pride themselves on their classical training), which is flavoured with orange and is the original companion to duck.
This dish, then, had three contrasting flavours and was garnished with cubes of glazed beetroot and served with a fondant potato.
Other mains included a similarly priced chicken breast with crispy wing and warm pressing of the leg meat and, for £1 more, braised venison with clapshot puree. The carte is changed seasonally, the fixed price monthly.
Dessert was a hard choice but I liked the fun involved in Russell’s Arctic Roll (£6), not from Iceland but a white chocolate parfait enclosed in pastry with, among others things as garnish, a fruit leather of strawberries and raspberries.
It was a good night. Russell, who has been at the bistro almost from the start, had two other tables of two to cook for and we were impressed by the accuracy of taste and his unflappability.
A small point: the carte prices justify an appetiser or breads but you certainly save on the wine. We paid just over £50 for a very entertaining, thoughtful meal. It’s worth saying most dishes are gluten-free but check when you book.
Barrett’s Bistro, 2 Hutcliffe Wood Rd, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S8 0EX. Tel: 0114 249 10550114 249 1055. Open Wed-Sat 12-2.30 and 6-9.30pm. Bowl suppers to take away until 7.30pm (see website). Music. BYO (corkage £2). Gluten-free dishes. Credit cards. Street parking. Web: www.barrettsbistro.co.uk