How often have you dared to refuse to pay the London “optional” 12.5% service charge? Unfortunately it is a fact of life in London and one that I have got quite used to. I have only refused to pay the charge twice, once in a pub where I ordered my meal at the counter and then went back to the counter to collect it (where is the service in that?) and secondly, at Noura in Covent Garden.
Mezze selection
My friend Alice had organised a big group of people to see The Misanthrope starring Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis. We wanted a pre theatre restaurant and Noura seemed to fit the bill as it was within 500m walk of the theatre, came recommended by Time Out and featured a pre theatre menu keenly priced at £14 for two courses.
The restaurant is palatial in style, with columns, white stucco walls, high ceilings and seating for 150. At the early time that we ate the restaurant was fairly empty and lacking in atmosphere. There were lots of waiting staff who seemed to be hovering around with nothing to do, however it was almost impossible to get their attention. Eventually we flagged one down and explained that we were going to the theatre at 7.30 and so needed to leave the restaurant within an hour. Apparently this was no problem so we ordered some wine and mezze selection.
Rather than a shared platter of mezze we each got our own individual plate. There was some creamy hommus with a strong garlic flavour, a dip of smoky eggplants known (mouttabal), tabbouleh salad, a small puff pastry triangle filled with spinach called fattayer, and crispy felafel. It was quite a feast for an individual starter. The mezze was served with bread served puffed up fresh from the oven at the side of the restaurant where one of the chefs was on duty constantly baking new loaves.

Shish taouk
We finished quickly but our plates sat on our tables uncleared for 20 minutes. We started to get anxious about timing and eventually flagged down another waiting explaining that we had to go. More time passed and we eventually said we would have to cancel our mains orders. Magically they appeared, juicy plump skewers of chicken (shish taouk) on a bed of lettuce. They were delicious but we only had time to eat half our meal before rushing to the theatre and making it to our seats just before the bell.
We had paid the bill as our meal arrived and decided to deduct the service charge. A waiter came back over and told us that we owed more money so we had to explain to him that the service charge was “optional” and that after such a bad service experience we were not paying it. I feel sorry for the chefs who may have been deprived some of their tip (assuming the waiters split the tip with the kitchen) as the food was really quite good but in this situation the service really ruined our meal and left us feeling flustered and sweaty at the play after our sprint to the theatre door.
Details: 122 Jermyn Street, Piccadilly Sw1Y 4UJ (Ph 020 7839 2020) Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Damage: such a bargain even my mother would approve
If you liked reading this you might be interested in some of my other reviews of restaurants for pre-theatre dining: J Sheekey which is perfectly located for Wyndhams theatre (along with several others) and Kazan for the theatres near Victoria including the Apollo theatre currently showing Wicked.

Noura on Urbanspoon


  1. When the service fails to meet expectation drop the service charge ! It will send the message.

    Secondly, in a large number of restuarants, the service charge is not used as a tip or bonus but used primarily to fund the service staff wages which is often only minimum wage. IMO a restaurant should pay it’s staff minimum wage (at least) and use the service charge as a bonus or tip for good performance.

    I will often pay the service charge in cash and ensure the waiter is aware the cash is for the staff and not to contribute to the cash flow of the restaurant.

  2. So food was good but don’t go there if you’re in a hurry! I don’t blame you for withholding service, speaking as an ex-server, nothing annoys me more than shoddy service, esp when you informed them beforehand of your theatre plans.

  3. I have walked past this place so many times but it looked just too polished, so I had my reservations. I will give it a try @ £14 for two courses, it is not bad.

    Have you tried Mon Plaisir on Monmouth St? Apparently the oldest French restaurant in London, it is an elegant restaurant near Pop Boutique. It has an good menu at £15.95 for three courses, including a glass of house wine and a coffee (from 5.45pm to 7pm). I have been there a few times, and have always been impressed by both the food and service.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  4. Baffling how places offer pre-theatre menus and then behave like that, I mean it’s the whole point. I’ve had it happen to me a couple of times too and not paid the service charge for exactly the same reason, good on you! I’ve usually had good experiences with pre-theatre menus though, the staff often asking when we’ve got to go, what we’re going to see etc, unfortunately it’s the disasters like this that we all talk about.

  5. I’ve refused to pay service more often than I’d care to admit – the staff just don’t understand that it’s optional, and if they don’t do a good job then that’s what happens. I hate having to eat with one eye on the clock.

  6. I’ve refused to pay on several occasions, the last of which was coincidentally also at a restaurant at Covent Garden for exactly the same reason. I HATE running to the theatre and we had warned them well in advance that we needed to be out by a certain time.

    In the end they were so slow about everything we even had to chase them down about the bill. I seriously considered just getting up and leaving since they didn’t seem that interested in taking our money.

    Frankly my best recommendation for pre-theatre at Covent Garden is Just Falafs and then a warm cookie from Ben’s Cookies for dessert!

    Jetsetting Joyce

  7. I think you were right to do that if the service didn’t meet your expectations. After all the tip isn’t mandatory and I think they sometimes forget it. I think it’s rather bad form to come back to you to tell you you hadn’t paid enough although that was probably part of the whole bad service issue in the first place 🙂

  8. I didn’t pay the service charge in Nobu once, we’d had their big tasting menu (omakase) and not only had we been rushed through the whole thing – having to grab unfinished plates back from over-eager staff, having them loitering over us etc – they’d been pretty snooty and unhelpful all the way through.

    Not only did the waiter come back saying we “owed more money”, once we explained why we’d knocked the service off the bill he told us that he was expecting twice the usual tip from us because he’d done us a huge favour by persuading the kitchen to “allow us” to have the omakase! He went off and got the manager and we had to explain all over again with the waiter standing next to him, arms crossed and making petulant little “hmmph!” noises at every point we raised. That was a weird night all round.

  9. It’s too bad you had such shoddy service but I’m glad you made clear why you didn’t leave service. On a vaguely-related note: I’m currently in the US and having a hard time getting back into groove of leaving 15-20% tips.

    Not to go too off-topic, but how was the play? : ) Film celebs in plays often disappoint, no?

  10. Sounds atrocious. Well done for standing up to them. Many don’t.

  11. I agree the best pre-theatre place in Covent Garden is Just Falafs!

    I’ve refused to pay service once in Ping Pong and once a restaurant out in the countryside. Luckily both times the restaurant agreed they hadn’t been up to scratch.

    Hope you enjoyed the play!

  12. Gregory – Nice to hear from you again. I agree it is the best way to send that message and I think your approach to making a point that the tip is going to staff is a good one. I think new legislation has been brought in to ensure this is the case as well.

    WineSleuth – yes only an option for a very relaxed meal with no time pressure – which pre theatre never is !

    London Foodie – thanks for the tip that sounds like a great deal

    Jones – I agree, it is the whole point – very strange indeed surely the cheap offer is only so the table can be cleared quickly – not left there half the night.

    Lizzie – Agreed – eating with one eye on the clock does spoil the enjoyment of the meal

    Joyce – well you are the pre theatre queen so you should know!

    Lorraine – just be glad that such an “optional” charge does not exist in Sydney!

    Jones – talk about making a bad situation even worse

    American in London – are you still on holidays you lucky thing? yes it is a big tip in the US but at least it is actually discretionary and you always get good service. Mind you I don’t like the table turning. PS Play was actually very good, Keira was excellent. I recommend.

    Browners – it was not much of a stand but it was a little!

    Lex Eat – looks like Just Falafs it is then for next time.

  13. There’s nothing worse than panicking all through your meal that you won’t get to the show on time and I HATE having to argue abotu why I did not leave a service charge. A pity, because the food sounds good. If you’re at that end of theatreland, Brasserie Roux does good pre-theatre menus and service was quick and efficient when I was there.

  14. Jeanne – thanks for the theatre land tip.

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