Continued pressure on the restaurant sector means owners are stepping "cautiously" into Christmas 2012, as consumers keep a tight rein on spending.
While a few London restaurants are saying they are in an optimistic mood, elsewhere venues are more subdued, saying bookings have come in later and they are not expecting any big spenders.
Fred Sirieix, general manager at Galvin at Windows in London, said November was the best it had in six years, and Christmas and New Year is already fully booked. "Bookings are very good this year. A good mix of corporate and private. For the first time Christmas Day and New Year's Eve are almost full already," he said.
Des Gunewardena, chief executive officer, D&D London, hailed November as a good month for both its established restaurants and its two new ventures – South Place Hotel and the restaurants at the Old Bengal Warehouse – which are "doing well", with all December bookings ahead of last year. "The key question is what will Londoners spend this Christmas – and we don't know that yet," he said.
Neleen Strauss, owner of Nyetimber, said bookings have taken longer to come in this year, but they too are now full over Christmas, with New Year's Eve showing itself to be a "surprise hit".
However, despite the good news, Strauss added: "I think all restaurateurs will be relieved it's Christmas. I don't think we'll have people spending freely, as they are all still very much budget-conscious and I don't imagine they will be splashing out."
After a "disappointing" October and November, Gerard Bassett OBE, director of the 10 in 8 group, is optimistic of having a good Christmas, but is also looking further ahead. "We have more corporate business than last year, so things are looking up there." But Bassett added that while the festive season might be good, January and February "can make a huge difference to any gains".
In Manchester, Evuna owner Jane Dowler said trade is "stable" and although it is fully booked she has noticed far more corporate clients choosing the £20 group menu rather than the £30 version, and more people asking for discounts on the back of the "voucher culture".
Likewise, John Dammone, owner of Salvo's in Leeds, sees this year as one of "consolidation and not one of Champagne corks popping". He said: "The best case scenario is that our takings are the same as last year. Bookings are definitely later and I'm chasing a lot more people for confirmation." Customers are hedging their bets and always looking out for cheaper offers, which he sees as unsustainable. "It seems many restaurants are chasing cash flow in order to meet their quarterly rents," he added.
At Aumbry in Prestwich, owner and chef Mary-Ellen McTague said she doesn't feel people will be extravagant this year, and although bookings are up they have been later. "A lot of people are also going for tasting wines that match the menus, rather than individual bottles as they are good value. But I'll just be happy if it is a steady one," she said.
At the Victorian Chop House in Manchester, head of marketing Mili-Anne Bhatia said bookings this year have been starting later than last year, but she expects this is really to do with all the events of the summer rather than anything else. She added: "Although people are looking at their purse strings, they still want quality food and this is a core decision when they are looking at where they are booking."
Noel Reid, wine and spirits buyer across the 360-strong estate of Frederic Robinson, said he doesn't have up-to-date Christmas booking figures on how the rest of the estate is doing currently, but said the Red Lion in Stockport is "way ahead in bookings". "It is full every weekend until the new year and is way up on last year." Reid puts it down to being proactive and not waiting for people to come to them. "They've spent a lot of time approaching businesses in the area and advertising in local press," he said.