It was once an unstated pact underpinning the restaurant business that, in return for your custom, you would leave well fed and perhaps with a smile on your face. During your meal, the restaurant would look after your coat, your umbrella, and any shopping or briefcase.
Yet, while the first part of this bargain endures, the second has been dwindling. Fewer and fewer restaurants operate with a full-time receptionist, let alone a full-time cloakroom attendant. There is also growing pressure on “back-of-house” space, as restaurants crop up in smaller units in what used to be shops, warehouses and even coal depots. Rising numbers of restaurants have adopted a more casual approach to dining, however hefty the final bill may be. Increasingly, customers are asked to hang up their own coats or even to keep them on the backs of their chairs.
This shift has been led by numbers. In terms of space, fine-dining restaurants used to be 40 per cent back of house, 60 per cent front of house. In the past, there was enough room for decent lavatories, staff changing rooms, an elaborate kitchen, wine storage and, naturally, a cloakroom close to the reception. Yet, for a few years, this ratio has been falling to 30:70, as restaurateurs, facing higher rents, have sought to maximise the number of potential customers at the expense of, well, everything else.
As Richard Coraine, special adviser to Danny Meyer’s New York USHG restaurants, put it to me in November, “Our planning for cloakrooms has definitely changed given the need for space usage over time and the casual population holding on to their coats. I also think it might be a time issue where people don’t want to wait to retrieve coats and just be on their way as soon as possible. I have seen spaces function as ‘manager offices’ and then be used for coats during the chilly months. The need for storage, wine and sales space has made coats a secondary proposition.”
New York rents are extremely high and restaurateurs have to balance the tricky act of providing what the customer wants with affordability. At the very least, they must provide a suitable kitchen and a place for storing precious bottles of wine back of house.
Rising wages have also played a part. A cloakroom attendant is busy for 30 minutes at the beginning of the lunch service, slightly longer in the evening and then rushed off their feet at the end. In between, they are invariably under-occupied. Payment used to come via wages topped up with cash tips that were generous in the winter months, particularly over Christmas, but negligible in summer. Cash tips have vanished in many places, while the need to make the receptionist more productive has become an imperative. Hence many newer restaurants have no dedicated receptionist or greeter. Instead, the job of greeting tends to fall to the waiter who happens to be closest at the time.
When I talked to Matt Ashman, head of leisure and restaurants at property agents Cushman & Wakefield, he agreed this was a trend likely to continue. “Since the lockdown, restaurateurs are looking at properties again but with two key priorities. The first is that the space must have provision for outdoor seating and the second is that there must be the capability to service takeaway deliveries. I just don’t believe that any new restaurant’s provision for looking after coats, bags or even my Brompton bicycle is a restaurateur’s priority any more.”
Discarding the cloakroom may also have legal advantages. According to Marcus Barclay, a partner with law firm CMS, if a ‘‘restaurant’s cloakroom has accepted something from the customer, then the restaurant has actively accepted responsibility to take care of the things which the customer entrusts to that care”. If, however, the customer hangs up their coat in full view of their table and then it’s stolen, the restaurant isn’t liable.
The movement towards a more relaxed style of dining in buildings that do not have the space for cloakrooms, or their attendants, seems unstoppable. So, better keep the Burberry raincoat at home and wear the second-best jacket instead.