I am sitting at a table that doesn’t exist. I wanted to eat out at a table 13, defying superstition ahead of the third Friday the 13th in this unusually inauspicious year, but it was hard to find one. Only two of the UK’s 14 best restaurants have a table 13, most simply skipping from 12 to 14. Here at London’s Le Gavroche, the closest I can come is to dine at table 12a, a kind of phantom table 13, the cursed spot that dare not speak its name.
“It is absolutely ridiculous,” says Michel Roux Jr, the chef who owns the two-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Indeed, given the outstanding meal I’m devouring, the idea that I might be considered unlucky to be sat here is absurd. However, superstition defies reason.
“I personally would feel very uncomfortable sitting on table 13 or if there were 13 people at the table,” Roux says. “And I would also feel uncomfortable offering a table 13 to somebody.”
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 Chinese traditions, he says: “If the number eight is somewhere in the business — either the address or the telephone number — this is a good sign,” which is just as well since you’ll find his restaurant at 8-10 Pollen Street.
Le Gavroche general manager Emmanuel Landre says customers are as apprehensive as proprietors. When people book up the whole restaurant and devise their own seating plans, “99 percent of the time they avoid number 13 on purpose.” It may be irrational but “a curse is a curse and nobody wants a curse.”
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 (there is no agreed answer as to when and why the superstition about this number began) — is the idea that if 13 people gather at a table, one will be dead within a year.
Although the true genesis of the superstition is unclear, two dining stories are often held up as origins. First, there is the Last Supper, where Jesus ate with his 12 disciples and the 13th man in the room betrayed him. Then there is the Norse legend of the 12 gods invited to a banquet in Valhalla. The party is crashed by Loki, the spirit of strife and mystery, and Balder, the favorite of the gods, is killed. However, as E and MA Radford wrote in their 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions: “This would hardly account for the dislike of the Romans and Greeks for the number 13.”
Some, like me, have deliberately sought to defy the 13 myth with their stomachs. In 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer describes the original “Thirteen Club,” created in the US in the 1880s. On the 13th of every month, the group would meet to eat at tables of 13. Five successive US presidents became honorary members, including Theodore Roosevelt.
Thirteen is not the only superstition to permeate the catering industry. Landre says that, like most of the staff there, “when I drop some salt, I take it and throw it over my shoulder, to remove the curse it can bring.”
It’s another food superstition with a Last Supper association. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, follow Judas’ right arm from the hand holding the treacherous 30 pieces of silver and you’ll see it has knocked over a salt cellar, a sign of bad luck.