Your Restaurant Meals Are Getting Shorter and There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

You’ve barely even glanced at the cocktail menu before an anxious server approaches the table and asks if you have any questions.

“Could you give us a minute?”

“Sure, sure… take your time.”

Moments later, before you’ve even had a chance to open the menu, a suited staff member, presumably a sommelier or manager, asks if you’d like to order drinks or have any questions about the wine list. Fearing another intrusion, you obligingly order drinks.

After the waiter delivers the cocktails, he recites the specials and asks if you need any help or if you’re ready to order. You haven’t even had a sip of your drink and he’s already badgering you to place the order.

“Sorry, we haven’t looked yet,” you say, summoning as much compassion as you can muster without showing you’re annoyed by his pestering.

“I’m so sorry,” the waiter apologizes nervously, “I’ll can give you some more time.” He stands uncomfortably close to the table glaring at you and pounces like a bobcat the moment you put down your menus.

This scene probably sounds hauntingly familiar to anyone who frequents restaurants. As the industry struggles to combat shrinking margins by increasing cover counts, restaurant goers are afforded less and less time to enjoy their experience. Input costs—food, labor, rents—are skyrocketing and raising prices is always a last resort.

The only way for many restaurants to protect their profits in today’s challenging economy is to go faster. Allowing guests to dictate the pace of their meals is a luxury of yesteryear and most casual places can’t afford to relinquish the steering wheel anymore.

Even in the busiest restaurants, management has had to find creative ways to minimize turn times. Waitstaff are browbeaten nightly prior to their shifts about the urgent need to expedite table turns. In popular restaurants, the need to turn tables is often emphasized over the basic tenets of hospitality. Excellence is still expected, it’s just expected faster.

Maitre’ds, who are responsible for seating everyone punctually, have become merciless toward incomplete parties and tardy guests. If they seat latecomers or an incomplete party, there will be likely be rigid conditions attached for returning the table at a particular time.

Busy restaurants often aggressively over-book to account for no-shows and last minute cancellations. Many parties with prime time reservations will be given earlier slots even though the restaurant knows it’s unlikely they’ll be seated on time.

Getting more people through the door often requires making false promises. It also necessitates swiftly turning, if not flat out rushing them, the first tranche of tables to seat the second and third wave of reservations on time. Talk to any restaurant manager about their priorities and, if they’re being honest, almost everyone will admit it’s turning tables.

As a result, hospitality norms have eroded out of necessity. Our primary focus used to be on making you happy, now we’re focused on making you happy in a shorter period of time. If you’re eating slowly, the kitchen may send your main courses before the appetizers have been cleared. Busboys are more likely to hover over your table like vultures, looking to clear the table at the precise moment you take your last bite.

There’s a good chance the check will arrive without your asking. Didn’t that used to be rude? Once taboo, managers have also become less gun shy about asking parties who linger to vacate (though it will usually involve some token concession like buying everyone drinks at the bar).

If you choose to abuse the power to stay as long as you like, there may be consequences. Developing a reputation for habitually lingering (we call it “camping”) may negatively influence your ability to make reservations in the future. Most restaurants with computerized reservation systems have notes on your profile where they log your tendencies.

Of course the restaurant values your business, but it just doesn’t value it as much as a guest who also respects the parameters of a normal table turn. People always like to think restaurants are democracies, but they are not. Restaurants are meritocracies. Because they are private businesses, favoritism may exist when it protects the bottom line.

All restaurants make an effort to treat every guest equally. But, as a guest, you have endless opportunities to distinguish yourself. The more loyalty you show to a restaurant, for example, the more leeway you’ll be given for dictating the pace of your meal. Extending that courtesy to everyone can be crippling to revenue and upsetting to other guests who are seated late because of it.

Rather than making demands about slowing down your meal or holding the table hostage, make an effort to work within the restaurant’s parameters. Showing awareness of the need to return the table is guaranteed to make the staff more gracious toward you. If you’re finished your meal but don’t want to leave, politely ask someone if they could find space for you at the bar for after dinner drinks.

Whether you like it or not, the best catalyst for enthusiastic service is always spending more money. Once you stop buying things in a restaurant, your entitlement to occupying the table expires. Management always does it’s best to extend courtesy to everyone dining to give them as much time as possible to enjoy their experience but, like everything, there are limits.

Restaurants serve as communal spaces, but the seat you’ve procured doesn’t belong to you. Staying seated in it for a long time is a privilege not a right, and, as the restaurant industry struggles to serve our communities, we ought to respect that more. Otherwise, our favorite restaurants may start disappearing sooner than we think.

There’s No Such Thing as Medium Rare “Plus”

steak temperatures

Classic French cooking approaches steak temperatures with a simple elegance. There are four basic ways the French order steak. Bleu means very rare, quickly seared on each side. Saignant, literally meaning bloody, is a bit more cooked than bleu, but still quite rare. À Point implies “perfectly cooked” (the closest to our Medium Rare) and Bien Cuit, well done. The French don’t fuss with superfluous language around ordering meat; you like your steak one way or the other. The behavior is anchored in a tradition of respect for the chef’s expertise and deference to the talent in the kitchen.

Americans aren’t able to speak so abstractly about cooking meat and are more suspicious of the chef’s faculties. To make steak temperatures more scrutable, restaurants (with the blessing of the USDA) devised a vernacular to help diners better understand the different gradations of doneness. The approach is rather dogmatic with five concrete meat temperatures, now ubiquitous: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done. Restaurant chefs have adhered to this scale for generations but they are a constant source of headaches for hospitality professionals. No matter how streamlined these guidelines have become, there will always be differences in perception around how we should define them.

Today’s diners are becoming increasingly nuanced about how they like their meat cooked. As palates become more sophisticated, defining proper meat temperatures has evolved into a significantly more complicated conversation. It’s disturbingly common to hear guests request “plus” temperatures, meaning they want their meat cooked a shade in between two standard ones. “Medium Rare Plus” implies they like their steak cooked a little more than Medium Rare but not quite Medium. Unfortunately, most restaurant kitchens are too busy to handle this level of specificity.

steak temperatures

Trying to make guests happy who order their meat cooked outside of the standard spectrum can drive servers—and chefs—to madness. If we insist that guests adhere to the accepted scale, we increase the likelihood that they’ll send their food back. If they’re unhappy with the finished product, they’ll blame us for not making enough of an effort to understand their preferences. If we allow them to order fabricated steak temperatures that don’t exist, we must face the rage of an ornery chef who bristles at anything that strays outside of protocol. As with many hospitality conundrums, we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place. 

A restaurant kitchen isn’t an artist’s studio; it’s a factory. As a guest, you have a responsibility to understand that not every element of your dining experience is customizable. When you dine in a restaurant, you are enjoying plates or food that were engineered to be efficiently served simultaneously to a dining room full of hungry people. Expecting your initials monogrammed on every dish shows a lack of respect for the orderliness that is necessary for a cohesively functioning kitchen.

If waiters could somehow escort every guest who ordered “Medium Rare Plus” into the sweltering kitchen to explain to the grill cook how they like their steak, not a soul would ever ask for it that way again. The power that many guests feel when it comes to the peculiarities of cooking their food is in the luxury of not having to deal with the shame of facing the sweaty cook who’s making it. Good guests won’t abuse that power. 

Stop Storyboarding Your Restaurant Meals

“May I offer any recommendations on the menu?” the waiter asks cheerfully. “No,” the guest answers, ”We already knew what we wanted before we sat down.” That’s strange, the waiter thought, I haven’t even told them about the specials and they’ve already decided?

Without skipping a beat, the table proceeds to order the most talked-about dishes on the menu. It’s obvious to the waiter that they must’ve scoured the Internet in the days leading up to their reservation to prepare in advance. Even after hearing the specials, they were unwilling to veer from the script. “Everything sounds really good but we’ve just heard so much about the [appetizer] and the [entree] that we have to try them,” they say proudly, returning the menus. 

Technology has drastically changed the way people make decisions in restaurants and has caused table-side negotiations to become more anti-social. Waiters approach tables to offer guidance and routinely find everyone on their phones swiping through photographs of popular dishes. Instead of asking about specific menu items, some guests unapologetically show the photos to the server and ask him to identify it.

The “Show-and-Tell” method has become a very common way for restaurant guests to solicit help navigating the menu from their servers. These guests only care about the most photogenic dishes that look good on their Instagram. Some guests don’t interact at all. They forgo help because they’ve already invested time beforehand researching fan favorites and critically-acclaimed dishes. They willfully trust the opinions of total strangers over the staff’s expertise. 

Storyboarding-restaurant-meals

The “storyboarding” of restaurant meals is a poisonous trend that turns potential great restaurant experiences into pedestrian ones. More diners are planning their meals in advance like film directors who have a particular vision of how their films should look aesthetically. But dining this way negates impromptu decisions that might stray from the original plan but improve someone’s meal. Often the storyline they’ve scripted ahead of time is static instead of the dynamic experience they would have had if they’d approached dining more openly. 

A restaurant visit is meant to be a spontaneous experience. One of the joys of great restaurants is their ability to surprise you unexpectedly. That can’t happen with so much advance planning. Everyone can recall thanking a waiter for a suggestion that changed the course of their meal. One could argue that as restaurants have become more expensive—the cost of bad choices has gone up too—so preparing in advance is a preemptive measure that can help curtail disappointment. Unfortunately, safer choices don’t always mean better ones.

Putting so much faith in other people’s opinions will often lead individuals to make poorer choices for themselves. Ordering based on popularity—instead of one’s own personal preferences—sets these guests up for failure. Just because everyone raves about a particular dish, doesn’t mean that it’s the right dish for everyone. Chefs work very hard on every dish they put on the menu, and it drives them batty when guests only gravitate toward the “signature” dishes. 

Negative reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, aside from grumbling about prices, often condemn signature dishes as being “not worth the hype.” In most cases, these diners were let down because they ordered popular items instead of approaching their meal with a blank slate. Groupthink makes diners less adventurous and their choices more monochromatic. Servers are now tasked with trying to force guests into conversation about the menu when it used to be the other way around. 

Luckily, it’s very easy to correct these bad habits. There are simple steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls of storyboarding. First, read as little as possible about a restaurant beforehand so you don’t arrive with too many preconceived notions. Engage the staff and ask about “sleeper hits” not just the “blockbusters.” Be more open to suggestions and willing to take risks with your order. Step out of your comfort zone. Instead of everyone at the table ordering the same famous dish, try to diversify your menu choices by including that dish among a variety of other shared plates. Approach dining out with the understanding that pleasant surprises can’t happen without the possibility of disappointment. It’s always worth chancing because restaurant experiences can only be great if you let them.