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Ask Mister Manners: Do I really need to cancel a restaurant reservation?

Think it’s OK to skip out on a reservation you made last week at the neighborhood’s hot new restaurant? Your credit card statement may show otherwise.

Imagine waking up to this text from a good friend: “Sorry about my no-show at the Dua Lipa concert. It was a long day at work.”

And how about this excuse from a new tennis partner? “You know, my therapy session ran long, and there was just no way I could make it to the club in time for our match.”

Lastly, is there any chance of a G-rated reply to this missive? “I should have called to let you know I couldn’t keep our date yesterday. I guess I got distracted.”

Met with pitiful explanations such as these, it’s highly likely you would be moving on to friends and partners — whether tennis or romantic — who are more reliable and considerate.

Is it any wonder, then, that restaurants are weary of patrons who make up flimsy, last-minute excuses for canceling their reservations? Or, worse, those who don’t call to cancel at all?

(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a column that delves into a smorgasbord of dining-etiquette dilemmas.)

A trend that's here to stay

We may well have thoughtless diners to thank for the profusion of restaurants that charge reservation fees — a trend spotted by the New York Times as far back as 2015. Particularly when reserving a tasting menu seat at a fine-dining establishment, nonrefundable reservation fees are a rarity.

At Kato restaurant in Los Angeles, a cancellation made with less than seven days’ notice results in a $275 per person ding. At three-Michelin-star Brooklyn Fare in New York, you may well need a lawyer to decipher your cancellation rights, as spelled out in small-type footnotes with no clear antecedent. From all indications, you’ll be kissing two Benjamins goodbye if you flake out on your reservation there.

Although the vast majority of cancellation fees nationwide are far less than these, the sting can be real, particularly for a large group making a last-minute switch. And even for establishments where there is no cancellation fee, sites such as OpenTable and Resy will put you on notice if you no-show or late-cancel too many times.

Feeling a tummy ache coming on?

A recent Food & Wine story, using data supplied by reservation platform Seven Rooms, indicated that — faced with a potential cancellation fee — nearly a fifth of patrons would make up a family emergency and another fifth would feign illness in an attempt to get off the hook. Rather generously, the story goes on to congratulate those who would adjust their plans to avoid a fee: “In a bit of good news, 35% said they’d change their current plans to make it to their reservation on time,” the story cheers. More than half of the balance of cancellers would attempt to stave off a penalty by giving their reservation slot to a friend instead.

And if you don’t have a posse of hungry and spontaneous friends who are always game for stepping in to assume your place and save you the annoyance of a nonrefundable reservation?

Rather than claiming a faux case of dengue fever, here’s my advice from the get-go:

  • Read the fine print on the restaurant’s website. If you are not clear on the terms of a cancellation after supplying a credit card to secure your reservation, be sure to ask.
  • Share cancellation terms with all members of the party who will be joining for the meal (unless they are business clients or a romantic interest and you are hosting).
  • Confirm the attendance of everyone in your group 48 hours in advance.
  • Advise a hot-ticket establishment of any additions, deletions, time changes or cancellations the day before — at minimum — to give them a chance to welcome other guests who will enjoy the table instead.
  • Remember better late than never when it comes to making a cancellation call. Though there must be truly mitigating circumstances for you to be blameless for calling to cancel mere minutes before your scheduled arrival, at least they can move on. And so can you, even if that means swallowing a hefty fee instead of the beef bourguignon and potatoes dauphinoise.