Who’s table is it anyway? What should restaurants do with customers that won’t leave?

I recently was in the fortunate position to be able to compare and contrast two similar difficult situations that were handled differently. It’s rare in life that you get to consider a situation and your response to it after witnessing it handled in two different ways and seeing the results. The situation is as follows. Most of the time, when I go out to eat, I make a reservation. I take reservations very seriously. I show up on time. And on the rare occasion that I need to cancel a reservation or will be more than a couple of minutes late, I call the restaurant to let them know. For me, the reservation is sacred. A restaurant is granting you a spot in their precious schedule (typically you don’t need a reservation if their schedule isn’t all that full) with no commitment on your part. You can even blow them off with no consequences to you (and many do). But such is the business and I try to hold up my end of the bargain. (Yes I know there are some restaurants that demand credit cards and issue cancellation fees, but they are few and far between.) As the owner of my own small business, I understand how scarce time and resources can be, and I don’t want to waste theirs.

And when I arrive at the restaurant, I understand that I may not be seated exactly at the time of my reservation. I understand that the flipside of taking reservations on the honor system is that shit happens, and things run late sometimes, and that the restaurant tries to leave time between everyone so tables become available at the right time, but that’s not always possible.

This is very different than my conception of the reservation with airlines and doctors. In those cases I’ve typically already given my money which they will keep whether I show up or not. Why there is no government investigation into how an airline can sell you a seat on a plane and then tell you it’s full is a crime against humanity. I especially love the airlines use of the “overbooked” euphemism as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility. “The flight was overbooked.” Who the hell overbooked it? OK. Sorry. Moving on.

A couple of weeks ago I went to dinner at a restaurant that is fast becoming a favorite of mine in Seattle. The restaurant is Tilth. It’s a small place set in a little cute house with not too many tables over a dozen. I booked weeks in advance an 8:30 reservation for six of us to have a celebratory dinner. We showed up at 8:30 on the nose. Our table wasn’t ready. Within a few minutes, the friendly host came by and assured us it wouldn’t only be a few minutes as the folks at our table had just gotten their check. He was wrong. It took an hour. I have to admit that setting our expectations poorly didn’t help matters. It’s the opposite of the Disney trick where they tell you a line is longer than it is so you feel good at the end of the line about how quickly it went. Now… throughout our hour of annoyance, the host came out and apologized profusely several times. He offered us some snacks in the waiting area. He did the best he could, but nothing could move these chatty people out of their seats. Our icy glares at their backs seem to have little to no effect either.

Finally, out of frustration, I at one point asked the host if he would just tell them that there was another party waiting for their table. He politely told me he understood, but that there was simply no way he was ever going to ask them to leave. I told him I understood, though it did little to alleviate my frustration. And I did understand. The dining experience is a escape. It’s a place where you show up, you ask for food, and then it magically shows up. Perfect. Someone made it for you. Just for you. And they’ll keep bringing you food, and drinks, and waiting on you, even taking away your trash and cleaning everything for as long as you sit there. There’s no timer. There’s nothing taxing your experience. No pressure. Just ease, and comfort, and relaxation. Easy. And so I understand why the host wouldn’t corrupt this experience for these diners. Odds are, they’d never be back. It would basically ruin their evening. All other thoughts and impressions of the meal would be forgotten, replaced by the shock and anger as a result of the invasion of their peaceful night out. A friend of mine who’s parents ran a restaurant for many years would stay until the wee hours of the morning if just one party was still enjoying their conversation. The would never ever say anything.

But. I still wanted him to ask them to leave. Because I genuinely think they’re contributing to the breakdown of society. Just kidding — sort of. ;)

Just as with the reservation, when you go out to dinner, you are in an unspoken contract with the establishment. Even the most casual observer knows that if they eat at an early sitting, the restaurant is going to try and put another party at your table later on in the evening. And while paying your check is appreciated, it doesn’t mean you own the table for the entire evening. (At least in the U.S. it doesn’t. France is another matter.) But Americans think they own things once they buy them. In the same way that many diners think of restaurant kitchens as room service kitchens (can’t they make me whatever I like) they think they own the table for the whole night. And I understand wanting that experience. But I also understand being respectful of the restaurant as a business that has other customers. I found these diners behavior particularly objectionable because they sat there for almost an hour after they paid their check and could have easily noticed that there were tons of people still waiting to get in. They didn’t seem to care.

Eventually another party left and we got seated. The restaurant also I think bought us a round of something.

Recently I was in New York eating at Joe Doe. There were just two of us dining and we had an 8:30 reservation. (hmmm… maybe 8:30 is just a bad time for dinner.) We got there, sat at the bar, and were told that our table would be available shortly as the party using it had just gotten their check. Eerily familiar. But it wasn’t exactly the same. The two main differences were that Joe Doe had a bar and Tilth didn’t. Also, Joe Doe had a four top available, and Tilth was completely packed. Joe Doe was trying to hold the four top for a party of four so they didn’t want to put us there. It’s possible the two guys at the table either thought we were not waiting since we were sitting at the bar, or thought there were other tables available as there were. For some reason, I wasn’t as annoyed with them as I was with the party at Tilth. Then again, it was only half an hour that we waited.

Did they finally decide to leave? Nope. The waiter went over and informed them that someone was waiting for the table and they needed to get things going. I didn’t hear what he said, but he was incredibly diplomatic to me all night when I got in trouble for taking pictures so I would imagine he said it as politely and compassionately as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he offered to move them to the bar (an option not available to the host at Tilth). The gentlemen got up. And one of them was standing right next to us and said to the server “why didn’t you tell us that people were waiting for our table?” Filled with the wisdom of the host at Tilth, and my more lenient perspective since I guessed he wouldn’t realize there was anyone waiting for his table, and since he was referring to us, I said, “cause that would be rude”. Only problem was, that’s not what he said. My dining companion and I misheard him. In fact, what he said was: “Why did you tell us that people were waiting for our table.” He was pissed about it. And when I added my “helpful” commentary he thought I was castigating him. And then he told me I was rude. The server intervened so that things didn’t come to fisticuffs and we quickly realized that something was wrong and I shut the hell up. After the angry diners left, I profusely apologized to the server and explained my confusion. He was apologetic, but had no sympathy for the party that was overstaying their welcome. As he pointed out… 90 minutes should be enough for dinner. Two hours is just overstaying your welcome.

And while they weren’t perfectly identical situations, they were pretty close. Sure enough, the diners at Joe Doe had the reaction that the Tilth host was trying to avoid. And while I think the Tilth host would have been positively crushed by creating such a situation, the Joe Doe folks seemed to have a more resigned attitude. Why the difference in attitude and action? The easy explanation is Seattle vs. New York. The restaurant culture and the restaurant diner in New York city is simply more evolved. People who go out to eat at a restaurant like Joe Doe understand how things work, or at least they should/ And Joe Doe may get enough business that they can be picky about their customers. After all, in any service business, knowing when to fire a customer as almost as important as knowing how to get someone to be your customer in the first place.

Who did the right thing? I don’t know. If Tilth had a bar, I think it would have been ok to ask the party to move to the bar. Maybe offer them a free round of drinks or bottle of wine or something. I would guess that even if Tilth had a bar, they wouldn’t be willing to do that. I don’t blame them for this. I get it. But it still made me crazy. I wanted them to fire those customers if necessary. Then again, the server at Joe Doe said basically that to the folks at our table and they got pissed. I probably didn’t help with my confused interjection, but the guy was already pissed off before I opened my mouth. I just made him more annoyed.

I guess in my fantasy world, diners know how a restaurant works. And are respectful of the establishment that provides such a welcome escape. Several times we’ve been to Nishino, and they’ve been willing to fit us in at the last minute if we wouldn’t mind freeing up our table in time for the next party in time for their reservation. It wasn’t an unreasonable request on their prt, and we were only happy to oblige given how nice the were to squeeze us in on a busy night. And in my fantasy world, since diners are always cool, and good restaurants are always full, people who don’t play nice can be booted with little to no consequence because society will judge them harshly, and the restaurant won’t feel any ill effects.

Of course, that’s my fantasy world. And as such, not super helpful.

What do you think the right thing is?

8 Responses to “Who’s table is it anyway? What should restaurants do with customers that won’t leave?”

  1. Loving Annie says:

    I think if you make a reservation at a crowded/popular time (say 7:00 p.m.) in a CASUAL restaurant, then after an hour to an hour and a half maximum, you should be finished with your meal/conversation and know/be aware that the server would like to turn the table and honor another seating.

    That’s basic consideration on the customers’ part.
    The restauarant – if they are unable to seat you on time, should offer you free appetizers and a drink while you are waiting. That is basic consideration on the restaurants part.

    If you make a reservation at a popular/crowded time at a FINE DINING/MICHELIN STAR RATED restaurant where 8 and 10 course tasting menus are common and it is considered an experience to dine there – the restaurant needs to be aware that 3 hours is likely to be the extent of the meal service and book accordingly.

    Therefore, if they book a 7:00 and then an 8:30 it is their mistake/greed.

    Sometimes it is the customers who are rude.
    Sitting all night at a table because you want to talk in a busy restaurant is just thoughtless. It’s one thing if it is a birthday or anniversary or special occasion and you let the restaurant know this in advance so they were aware your table might not turn over.

    It’s also one thing if you stay at the table and tip the server accordingly for the fact that she/he is losing money by only having you there. (I am very conscious of the fact that they are working for minimum wage usually, and depend on their tips.)
    If I’m going to ‘hog’ a table on a regular lunch or dinner, I tell the server when they come to my table that I want to sit and chat with my friend(s)- and I also let them know I will pay them double their usual 20% tip on the bill because I am inconveniencing them.

    On holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s and Father’ Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc., restauarnts should give ample time over and above the norm for their customers and not expect to rush them.

    So lots of different factors come into play with this.

    Great discussion topic !

    Loving Annie

  2. Lenore says:

    Good point from Annie about preparing for “special occassions.” I’ve noticed that the very established/trendy/popular restaurants that tend to book-up often, will ask at the time of making the reservation whether you are celebrating a special occassion. This would allow them to tack on an extra 30-60 minutes at the time of booking, which could be helpful. (It also adds a nice personal touch & allows the diners to feel extra “pampered”)

    It could also be that the more established restaurants simply have more experience with this and have developed a policy on the subject, whereas newer, smaller & trendier restaurants may not have had the experience to develop a cohesive & well-informed policy.

    The bar makes a huge difference– and I’ll bet that if the server at Joe Doe had apologetically offered a special after-dinner drink at the bar on the house with a small dessert or something, they may have been happier about it. A small restaurant set in a house simply doesn’t have those kinds of options available to them.

  3. Sarah says:

    I think a kind, but firm verbal nudge usually does the trick. Allowing a bit of lingering time is essential, however, so the nudge must come at the right time. I think a skilled server can usually determine when enough is enough.

  4. Maggi says:

    I think it’s perfectly okay to inform a lingering party that their table is needed for someone waiting who had a reservation. I was in New York two weeks ago and had dinner with my husband and his friend at Tre Dici in Chelsea – we were a party of 3 at a four-top, but we ordered wine, appetizers, first & second courses, and dessert/coffee, so it was a pretty sizeable check for only 3 people. We were talking still after we had finished our dessert and coffee but when our extremely polite waitress let us know a party was waiting, we were perfectly happy to take our conversation with us to a new destination (our hotel bar!). I didn’t feel slighted at all–our meal wasn’t rushed, service was perfect, the food was fantastic, and we were on the verge of overstaying our welcome. Maybe it’s because I’m a native Seattlite and thus completely paranoid about offending someone? :) Regardless, I think it’s acceptable to politely ask someone to move on, especially for a party that made a reservation.

  5. Library Chick says:

    Great topic. I witnessed this the other day. It was lunchtime at a smallish upscale restaurant. I noticed that two gentlemen next to me appeared to be having an interview of some sort after they finished their meal. All the tables were full and patrons were standing and waiting. I didn’t hear the server clearly, but she said something along the lines of, “Unless I can get you coffee and dessert, I need to free this table up for the next party with reservations.” I thought it was well-stated, from what I could hear. The gentlemen took no offense whatsoever, as they hurried and apologized as they gathered their belongings. I do agree that it’s the responsibility of the diner to be aware of how long they are taking. My husband and I think of the server’s tips. If we stay at a table for what we perceive is to be longer than our usual, without being prompted to leave, we’ll compensate the server for what we assume are missed tips because of lack of turnover. But, ordinarily, we don’t linger that long if we know there’s a queue. I think also that if worded properly, a server or manager or owner can get patrons to leave in a way that doesn’t put a damper on the evening.

  6. Robert W says:

    All well said and I agree that there should be a mutual understanding between diner and server/manager, but we must remember that some people are assholes and think they own the place!

  7. Tami says:

    This is such a well written, diplomatic post. It would be easy to be in either of these situations and simply dismiss it all as incredibly bad service and vow never to eat at either of these restaurants again. The points you made really made me think about the balancing act that running a restaurant is as well as the frustrations for the honourable diner. Thanks for this provocative post.

  8. Dana says:

    I give two hours for reservations at my restaurant but I still have issues. The problem is if you are totally booked on a Saturday like we are, and you ask someone nicely to leave, they can give you a bad review, and in this economy that really can hurt you!

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