My (long-suffering) fiancé, John, had a celebratory dinner with workmates scheduled last Saturday for 7 p.m. at a popular sushi-hibachi restaurant in Fern Creek. At 7:45, he texted me: Still waiting for a table.
Sure, it was Saturday night, and the place was packed, but that seemed a little bit too much of a delay. I replied: Lordy. Didn’t you have a res?
John: Yes, but they won’t seat until the whole party is there, and someone was late so they gave our table away. At 8 p.m., an hour after their reservation (with the straggler finally having arrived at 7:30), they were seated.
I’m a back-of-the-house girl, so I never have to worry too much about the orchestration that must go on out front to ensure everyone has a good experience. I’m sure this rule can seem inhospitable to patrons. I reached out to some industry friends to get their take on it. Restaurants that roll like this must have their reasons, right?
Brian Curry, Executive Chef at Napa River Grill, said he hadn’t necessarily worked at a restaurant that enforced this rule, but he did say this: “I like the policy. I don’t know how many times we’ve sat people at one of our larger tables and then the rest of their party failed to show up. It can be frustrating for everyone involved.”
Alicia Phillips, a friend with eight years in the business who is a hostess and server at a local independent restaurant (with a tiny allotment of 15 tables), sent this missive: “Flipping tables is important, and we can’t do that with uncompleted parties. So if I have a four-table section and half of it is a large party waiting 30 minutes for everyone to arrive, it can be a challenge.”
Dallas McGarity, executive chef and partner at Marketplace Restaurant at Theater Square, has a unique take on this issue, because he often serves pre-show and pre-concert patrons who have a strict timeline in which to dine. “If the party isn’t sat until they all arrive then we can control the pace much better. It helps expedite the service, food and drinks and everyone makes the show on time. Theory behind sitting a completed party is that the server doesn’t have to take the drink order twice and the server also doesn’t have to be available for the table yet so the focus is on the tables that are there already. You also don’t lose space. Seating incomplete tables slows everything down in the restaurant. The bar backs up, the kitchen gets weeded and the server is running around trying to manage tables that should have already been past that point in their dining experience.”
Rick Moir, general manager of OLE Restaurant Group (which includes Mussel and Burger Bar, Cena, Guaca-Mole, Coconut Beach, El Taco Luchador and more to come) offered this: “We sit at least half of the party at Mussel & Burger Bar. (If) ‘John Smith’ is sitting at a table for an hour before their group gets there, and there is an hour wait — this basically to the restaurant is unprofitable and created a longer wait for guests that are present which is lose-lose for everyone. Whereas ‘Mr. Miller’ is there with his whole table and waiting for a table now for an hour when he could eat and be gone before the rest of the Smith party arrives. Dead seats in a restaurant that is busy does not help the business nor patrons that show up.”
Executive chef and owner of Seviche, Anthony Lamas, had only this to say: “We have no policy and allow people to sit anytime … mi casa es su casa is my policy!”
My friend, food writer and Executive Director of eGullet.org, David Scantland, had this to add: “It’s always seemed to me that the restaurant came out ahead when we were the first to arrive, because we always order an aperitif or glass of bubbly to amuse ourselves while waiting — a half-round of high-profit drinks that the restaurant wouldn’t have gotten had our party all been present at once. I love restaurants, and want them to succeed. A policy like this seems like a defensive move on the part of the establishment that’s mildly symptomatic of the prevailing Yelp-driven culture that sees restaurants as adversaries to be conquered, rather than accomplices in culinary adventure.”
“Accomplices in culinary adventure.” That’s what we all are. Let’s all try to be better accomplices. Hey, how about this: Let’s all just show up on time!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.