This past Friday I had a rare evening out with some of my fellow Zomppa’s. We met at a trendy little restaurant in the U St. corridor of Washington, DC called Marvin. It is named after Marvin Gaye who spent a period of time in Belgium and thus it serves a fusion of Belgian and soul food. Quite an interesting and lively place…not to mention totally PACKED on a Friday night. Luckily we had reservations! I incorrectly assumed that someone else in the party of 4 would be slightly late so I, being that I live quite close, did not rush to make our 8:30 reservation and sauntered in there around 8:38 pm.
The ladies, namely ZomppaBelinda who is a tiny woman with a HUGE appetite, were getting antsy and wondering when we were going to be seated. They figured since we had reservations for 8:30 that our table SHOULD be ready by now given that it was 8:55 pm. The hostess kept assuring us that it wouldn’t be much longer and that they were just waiting for the table to get up. I told them that we shouldn’t complain just yet given that I was a few minutes late. It dawned on my dinner companions that I might be able to shed some light on this madness that is reservations given the years I spent as a hostess and so the education began.
Some background…during college and for about 8 years after I worked in the restaurant business, first as a hostess, then server and finally management. I enjoyed hostessing because it was like putting a puzzle together or conducting a symphony because everything needed to happen a certain way in order for things to go smoothly. One change and things could go terribly wrong. So given my insider experience I thought I might share some thoughts with you so that perhaps you can approach your next dining experience with a different perspective.
All restaurant’s have their own policy when it comes to reservations’s but they are all quite similar. What diner’s need to keep in mind is that hosts/esses hold the key…really! Hosts/esses have the true power because they often know better than the manager what the situation is like in the dining room and therefore are best equipped to determine what can and cannot be done as far as seating. Here’s a quick breakdown on the seating/reservation process. Most restaurants break down the dinner shift into a 1st and 2nd seating. Hosts generally follow the rule that on average a 3 course meal runs about 2 hours from the time a table is seated. Based on that theory hosts can guestimate when a table will “turn” or free up. If a restaurant opens at 5 pm then those seated between 5 and 7:30 pm would form the 1st seating. Say a restaurant opens at 5pm and that restaurant seats a total of 80 people. Well 80 people most likely will not arrive at 5 pm, but perhaps 10 will. At 5:30 pm another 15 will arrive. At 5:45 pm, 4 will arrive. At 6 pm, 25 will arrive and so forth. The host can offer the tables that the first 10 occupied at 7 pm, theoretically, and the tables that the 15 occupied at 7:30. Now, they SHOULD leave room for late arrivals, incomplete parties, etc. Some restaurants reserve space for walk-ins, some don’t. During the course of the meal the host will monitor the tables to see what stage the various tables are at and determine if any adjustments need to be made for the next group of reservations. Generally tables of two finish up faster than parties of 4 or more (less to talk about). If you notice on the Open Table diagram there are color codes for what stage the different tables are at.
Open Table is an On-line reservation system that also serves to build relationships with diners. I’ll leave that subject for a whole other post. Suffice it to say that I did not have the luxury (and it is a luxury, believe me) of Open Table in my day. I used the good ole paper and pencil and my eraser got a good workout every night!
Back to reservations…most restaurants will not seat incomplete parties because if you are seated at a table and waiting for people to arrive then you haven’t really started your dining experience and it throws the whole timing off. Likewise, if you’re reservation is for a party of 6 and only 4 of you are present, if you are seated and the other two don’t show then they’ve wasted a table that they could have used for 6 people on a party of only 4 so that is not ideal for the restaurant. Generally restaurants have a 15 minute grace period for your reservation, but keep in mind that it’s a grace period for them, too. If you arrive exactly on-time and your table is not ready than they are allowed to keep you waiting, however if you wait more than 15 minutes than you should say something…in a nice way. Hostility will get you NOTHING and remember, the host/ess has the real power, so be nice and know that s/he is doing her/his best. If a restaurant keeps you waiting for a ridiculous amount of time then they should offer you appetizers on the house or at least a round of drinks, but you should not ask for this. You should wait and see if they do anything because they may comp your desserts. If you’ve waited for a long time and they do nothing you could offer a gentle reminder but by no means should you demand anything. If still nothing happens and you feel you’ve been wronged than you should write a letter to the General Manager describing your experience and they should make it right.
Not two minutes after I told the Zomppas that we can’t be mad at them yet because I was late, our table was ready. Don’t assume the host/ess is not seating you on purpose. S/he wants to seat you so s/he can cross you off the list. Remember that patience is a virtue and if you bring it with you when you dine out (especially to a busy restaurant) you should have a great experience! Happy Dining!