Without Reservation

Cold

I met my mother for lunch recently at a restaurant in town. We don’t eat there often, maybe once or twice a year. It was the Friday just before Christmas, and town was bustling. Mom was waiting in the foyer when I arrived at a few minutes before noon.

Have you checked in with the hostess? I asked.

No, not yet, she said. I guess we should have made a reservation. She’d been listening to the hostess chatter with arriving customers. I took matters into hand.

Hi, I said, approaching the hostess station. Can you take two for lunch?

Do you have a reservation? she asked.

No, I’m afraid we don’t, I said. Can you fit us in?

Well, she stiffened, we do have some reservations on the books. But I think we might have room for two.

Great! I said, and we followed her into the nearly empty dining room. But she stopped abruptly and placed our menus at a two-top by the entrance, a small table sandwiched up against a chimney, with a doorway just behind it.

Any chance we might sit at the window? I asked, gesturing to one of the vacant deuces across the room.

No, that table’s reserved, she said.

Okay, I understand, I said, as we took our seats. It must be especially busy over the holidays, I thought, expecting the lunchtime hordes to descend at any minute.

Our waitress greeted us, then served us our tea. We ordered, our food arrived. A few other parties trickled into main dining room, though some were guided to an adjacent dining area where the sun was streaming in. A small party was wrapping up a private celebration in a room nearby. I heard the hostess asking guests as they arrived about their reservations, and the repeated might-have-room refrain.

Twelve-thirty. By now the place was about half full, with four other parties in the main dining room and perhaps six or eight elsewhere.

Twelve-fifty. Our plates were cleared. We ordered more tea, plus dessert. We ate and talked and finished our meal. One-fifteen. We asked for our tab. The place was clearing out.

Did you see what happened here? I asked my mother, nodding toward the empty table by the window, the one I’d requested when we arrived.

No, she said. What happened?

That table stood empty throughout service.

I hadn’t noticed, she said. She genuinely hadn’t.

That table wasn’t reserved, I said. That’s not why they wouldn’t seat us there.

Her face was a question.

They did probably 20 or 25 covers for lunch, and their capacity is about 60, I said, scanning around. So even if every other person who ate here today had made a reservation, the hostess knew she wouldn’t have trouble “fitting us in.”

Mom was listening intently. This seemed to be a new way of thinking about restaurant service.

It’s actually rare in a restaurant for a specific table to be reserved at lunch, I continued. But it’s not unheard of, so it was a believable line. This place doesn’t require reservations, though they clearly prefer them. Reservations are easier on the staff, easier on the kitchen. They make it easier to plan. But walk-ins are common at lunch, and so the kitchen and staff generally know they have to stay flexible.

So, she asked hesitantly, why wouldn’t they give us that table?

Or any other, I wondered aloud. There were plenty of nice tables that stood empty all service, and yet they seated us at the worst table in the house, I said, pointing to the blank space where my plate had been. I paused, thinking it through.

Two reasons, I said finally. First, we arrived early, and they wanted to keep that table open for someone more important than us, someone they recognized, someone who dines here a lot but who showed up without a reservation. But second—and far less charitably: to punish us. By not making a reservation, we’d violated an unspoken rule—a staff rule not a customer rule—that valorizes reservations. She put us here to shame us, to teach us a lesson: call ahead.

Mom looked stricken. I tried to soften my tone.

The food was great! I conceded. Our server was fine. I could be making something out of nothing. Most people probably wouldn’t notice such treatment, or care. It’s a tic of mine, this noticing. I’m sorry.

We paid and got up to leave, pushing in our chairs and collecting our coats in the foyer. The staff smiled and waved us Happy Holidays! as we said our thanks and goodbyes.

Goodbye, I thought to myself, stepping into the light, goodbye, and happy holidays. But don’t think I didn’t notice.

 

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Without Reservation

I met my mother for lunch recently at a restaurant in town....
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6 Comments

  • Few aspects of dining out are more contentious than a restaurant’s reservation policy. Your post succinctly points out one of the thornier hurdles – the unsat, reserved table.
    Not knowing the exact policy of the establishment in question, I can only surmise that a)they were indeed acting in bad faith, b)that table was late and/or c)the hostess was just bad at her job.
    Having worked in and managed different restaurants with different reservation policies, I will say that (a) is the more unlikely option. But this seems to be your own premise. How did we get here?
    I can tell you this: I’ve been on the receiving end of many an incredulous and contemptuous look from a guest who clearly does not believe you when you say, ‘Unfortunately, that table is reserved’. Worse, to have the table in question sit empty while the guest finishes at another table! No one wants to have that happen, unless they are truly either a sadist or a masochist.
    There are several things at play here. One is the very notion of a better table and conversely, the worst table in the house. For the restaurateur, the ideal is to have every table be a table that your guest wants to sit at. The reality: when someone makes a reservation they are always sat at the best tables first. But, unless it’s a problem of sections for staff, walk-ins get the best available. That way, when you only have that crap deuce left, the couple will see that every other table is full.
    Another reality is that walk-in business is better. If you’re busy enough, you maximize your turnover without having tables stand empty. The reservation, no matter how much it may benefit the floor staff or the kitchen, is there because guests want it.
    Finally, to the “manager’s table”. This is the table that is kept free at the discretion of the manager, never the host/ess (unless, of course, they are one and the same). This can be useful, but I’ve never heard of the best table in the house being the manager’s table, nor the worst. Ideally, the manager’s table is out of the way yet easily moveable.
    Bottom line, you were in and out in under an hour and a half. It was clear that you wanted to sit at that table. An hospitable person would have sat you there and moved the reso to a different table or told you that you could sit there but that it was reserved for 1:00pm, etc. and would that be enough time? It is called the hospitality industry, after all. One of our jobs is to make people feel loved.
    Maybe your instinct was right, and this hostess just wanted to punish you. It’s entirely possible. Many a martinet has run the host/ess stand and, sadly, will continue to do so.
    Christopher Wilton

  • Regardless of reservation culture, polite staff reign supreme. You entered a service-oriented culture, where one pays (on a scale, I might add) for an experience. Other rules aside, a key one was blatantly ignored.
    It’s food, and it should be celebrated in a happy environment. How unfortunate that the first person you encountered happened to have just eaten a very sour apple.
    ~ Jeannette

  • Christopher, many thanks for your thoughtful and valuable comments as an insider in the restaurant business. Although I’ve worked as waitstaff during both lunch and dinner shifts at comparable restaurants, I’ve never been the decision maker—the hostess, manager, or maître d’hôtel—and I know the decision matrix is complex and multivariate. Your point about reservations being good for patrons is very well taken.
    In the case of this particular lunch service, there were many tables that stood empty that day, and so it’s hard for me to decipher the hostess’s calculus. Perhaps if we had arrived well into lunch service, rather than at the stroke of noon, the hostess might have felt she could sacrifice a better table to a couple who hadn’t made prior arrangements. Or, had she done what you suggest here—asked us whether we might be in and out within the hour—we could have been spared a small humiliation.
    Thanks again for reading and for your comments.
    Meg

  • Jeannette, thank you for your weighing in with your thoughts. The restaurant industry is often referred to as a service industry, though I like to think of it as an “experience” industry, and the quality of that experience is expressed through the interactions between staff and patrons, the presentation of the food, the ambiance, the soundscape, the light, the aromas, and the mood the place sets.
    Perhaps the holidays had everyone on edge (myself included), because the customary flow has been disrupted. The menu is different, the clientele is different, there are more private parties, the patrons are opening gifts at the table, etcetera. Things aren’t, in other words, “normal,” meaning as they are in February or August, and so perhaps the staff has to stay braced for the unexpected. In other words, and to your point, the holiday experience is supposed to be characterized by merriment and good will, but the holidays may in fact make this harder, rather than easier, on the players.

  • Meg,
    Nicely written. I’ve observed similar behavior mostly at restaurants that have ridden too long on their long lost reputation.
    I can only hope your observations were reflected in the gratuity? The hostess usually receives a portion.
    I hope that you at least will not frequent the establishment. I’d also suggest a quick review in yelp, although I understand that’s mostly a SF bay area thing; it’s an amazing way to get management’s attention that customers do notice indifferent or rude service, and yes, lying to you was rude.

  • Thanks, Steve, for reading, and for your kind comments. In this case, I wasn’t the one who paid the bill, so I’m not sure whether our sentiments were reflected in the tip. But I usually hate to penalize waitstaff for a hostess’s actions (I’ve waited tables—can you tell?), so I’m not sure whether I would have skimped on the gratuity anyway. I’ll try to take your suggestion to heart next time.

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