Today is Friday 13th; a day which is universally considered by the superstitious to be one of bad luck. As the third and final one we will experience in 2012, we’re taking a look at why the food and drink trade has taken the irrational fear of the number 13 to heart – and why the customers can be just as superstitious too.
Should you wish to defy superstition and indeed sit at table 13 in a restaurant, you would actually struggle to find one. Only two of the UK’s 14 best restaurants have a table 13, most simply skipping from 12 to 14. At Le Gavroche (number 10 in the list, incase you were wondering) the closest you’ll get is to dine at table 12a, a kind of phantom table 13.
“It is absolutely ridiculous,” says Michel Roux Jr, the chef who owns the two-Michelin-starred restaurant. But superstition defies reason. “But I personally would feel very uncomfortable sitting on table 13 or if there were 13 people at the table. Aand I would also feel uncomfortable offering a table 13 to somebody.”
Emmanuel Landré, general manager of Le Gavroche, says that customers are as apprehensive as proprietors. When people book up the whole restaurant and devise their own seating plans, 99% of the time they avoid number 13 on purpose. Landré says it may be irrational, but “a curse is a curse and nobody wants a curse.”
According to Jason Atherton, a graduate of Spain’s famous El Bulli and head chef at Pollen Street Social, not having a table 13 is “something that has always happened in restaurants“. Picking up on other number-related superstitions, he also notes that “if the number eight is somewhere in the business – either the address or the telephone number – it’s a good sign” which is just as well, since you’ll find his restaurant at 8-10 Pollen Street.
In many ways it is fitting that the restaurant world should be so full of superstition because one of its oldest forms of triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 – is the idea that if 13 people gather at a table, one will be dead within a year. Although the true nucleus of the superstition is unknown, two particular stories are often considered as origins. Most prominently is the Last Supper, where Jesus ate with his 12 disciples and the 13th man in the room betrayed him. Lesser known, but an iconic historical tale, is the Norse legend of the 12 gods invited to a banquet in Valhalla where the party is crashed by Loki, the spirit of strife and mystery, and Balder, the favourite of the gods, is killed. But as E and MA Radford wrote in their 1949 Encyclopædia of Superstitions: “This would hardly account for the dislike of the Romans and Greeks for the number 13.”
But there here is also one way in which superstition can be turned to our advantage. “Friday the 13th has always been a quieter Friday than usual,” says Roux. Even at Le Gavroche, which is fully booked for lunch until October? “Yes, being superstitious transcends all and everybody.” How do you get a table at Le Gavroche? Book on a Friday the 13th.