Should Restaurants Charge No-Show Fees?

20090424-empty-table.jpgWe’ve all had to cancel a dinner reservation. Life happens. And a courteous diner will call in advance and give the restaurant reasonable notice. But as any restaurant owner can tell you, not every customer is so gracious. For every night of reservations, some percentage will be no-shows. And for a small restaurant, or one without a steady stream of walk-ins, those missed covers can be the difference between a profit and a loss.

So what’s a restaurateur to do?

As times get tougher, for restaurants and everyone else, more establishments have started to impose steep fees for missed reservations. As Nation’s Restaurant News reports, Per Se in New York City charges $175 per seat for a booking canceled less than three days in advance; Momofuku Ko, with an online battle waged over every seat, charges $150 per person for less than 24 hours notice. Others impose fees only for in-demand occasions like Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve. But in either case, diners are increasingly held accountable for the tables they book—regardless of circumstances.

Are restaurants justified in charging diners a cancellation fee, as long as the terms are clear in advance? Or is this a sure way to drive away would-be diners?