Please Wait To Be Seated

restaurant-reservations

No matter how much people love dining out, they never like waiting for their table. Seating guests promptly is consistently one the most stressful parts of working in a restaurant. Hosts and maitre’ds around the world are routinely subjected to childlike tantrums and fits of hyperbolic outrage when guests are made to wait. Unfortunately, what most people don’t understand is that the process of booking restaurant reservations is an imperfect science.

Filling a restaurant is like a game of Tetris. At the beginning, the pace is slow and the puzzle pieces fit together easily. As the night progresses, the shapes become more complicated and the pace of the game accelerates. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit as well as we thought and the puzzle gets messy.

To impose order, most restaurants create a flexible template for managing bookings that staggers the seating arrangement throughout the night. The template assigns a time frame to each different party size that is considered ample for guests to enjoy their experience. In fine dining, that may be up to two hours for parties of two (we call them “deuces”) or between two and three hours for larger parties. More casual restaurants may be less generous with projected turn times. They need more volume to make up for lower menu prices. No matter how the reservation system is designed, there is rarely room for error. 

Predicting when each table will be ready is a tightrope act that can easily be thrown out of balance when unpredictable variables arise. If your party is incomplete or late for a reservation, this is why the maitre’d likely tells you he or she needs the table back at a particular time. You might find it inhospitable to be constrained in this way but so will the party after you forced to wait longer because you were late. The plan for filling the dining room rarely plays out the way it’s been scripted. 

On any given night, the reservation book ebbs and flows—people cancel and last-minute reservations are added. There are no-shows or people arrive with a larger or smaller party size than they originally booked. The way the tables are plotted changes in real time based on the pacing of each individual party.

The truth is—no matter how much data you have, it’s impossible to predict the amount of time it will take each individual table to complete their meal, pay their check and leave. There are never guarantees that just because a table has paid their check on time that they will also relinquish their table. In other words, when we give you a reservation time, in many cases, we are approximating when you’ll be seated based on the tendencies of the average guest.

This is why everyone who makes a reservation in a restaurant should understand that a reservation isn’t a contract. It’s understandable to be upset if you’re seated past your allotted time, but you shouldn’t feel cheated. 

Agreeing to a particular reservation time does not guarantee you’ll be seated at that time. A reservation is an attempt, in good faith, to accurately predict the time your table will be ready. It guarantees that you will have a table, but it does not guarantee that you’ll be seated at that table punctually. As a guest, you should always grant the restaurant a reasonable grace period. After thirty minutes, management should offer some kind of reclamation—like a round of drinks or complimentary dishes. They usually do. But even in these instances—though it perfectly fair to voice your displeasure—you should not feel entitled to anything. 

Restaurants create reservation templates to help seat you on time

It’s curious that most people are willingly accept the same approximations with doctor’s appointments, trips to the hair salon, airline departures and cable service calls. They’ll compassionately forgive long delays in office waiting rooms or airport gates without anywhere near the same sense of entitlement. Would anyone dream of standing at the front desk in a doctor’s office and demanding to be seen immediately a half an hour after their appointment? So why do we get so much more upset when we’re seated late for our restaurant reservations? Many people look down on the vocational work of restaurant professionals compared to more white-collar service industries. We feel more entitled to bully a hostess for a table than an dentist for a root canal.

The reasons for the delay in each of the above scenarios are exactly the same: The amount of time it takes to care for certain individuals varies and is hard to predict. For whatever reason, when we dine out, we assume if we’re seated late that it must be incompetence. It often isn’t. In most cases, late seating is due to extenuating circumstances—traffic, bad weather, a visit from the Health Department, or just people “camping.” Asking a table who is lingering to leave is a last resort and restaurants only do so in isolated cases. As an impatient guest, it isn’t fair to support evicting someone who’s overstayed their welcome for you to be seated unless you are willing to accept the same treatment when you linger. Most people aren’t.

More often than not, the staff of the restaurant will be remorseful it’s behind schedule and will do what it can to make amends. Showing grace in these moments may be difficult but it demonstrates that you don’t put your needs above others. Your calm will be repaid in attentive service. Ask anyone who works in restaurants, selfless guests are the most treasured ones. 

Well Done But Juicy

well-done-steak

On an otherwise smooth night, a guest summoned me to his table in a panic because he was disappointed with the Filet Mignon he had ordered well done. His complaint, predictably, was that the steak was dry. Everyone—except this guy, apparently—knows that Filet Mignon has very little fat and should not be served past medium rare. But before I could even respond, he launches into a five-minute diatribe about how a properly cooked well done steak should still be juicy. He pointed to the dark crust on the outside that was studded aggressively with black pepper and explained that it also shouldn’t be burnt (it wasn’t). To prove that it was dry, he offered me a taste of his steak—one of my pet peeves because I find it insulting to be offered someone’s half-eaten food. Only a person who doesn’t see you as an equal would offer you his leftovers. 

I brought the dish back to the kitchen bracing for the inescapable moment where the chef needs an explanation for the inexplicable. I told the chef that the guest wanted the steak remade, juicier this time. The silence in the kitchen was deafening. You could hear the chef’s blood pressure rising as he stared blankly at the dehydrated Filet. He explained the obvious that re-firing the steak would yield exactly the same result. It would also take an extra twenty-five minutes to cook.

So, I returned to the table and, on the chef’s behalf, suggested we prepare the steak medium well instead. The guest agreed and, of course, was annoyed by the wait and underwhelmed by the second iteration. The whole ordeal was a reminder of how often in hospitality we’re expected to show deference to ignorant people.

well-done-steak

When a guest doesn’t like the way a dish tastes, it’s easy. You take the dish away and replace it with a refurbished one or you offer alternatives. When a guest doesn’t like something because he thinks the dish is improperly cooked, it’s more complicated. “My pasta is undercooked” (no… actually it’s perfectly al dente). “These clams are too salty” (no… they have natural salinity). “My cappuccino isn’t hot enough” (no… a properly made cappuccino isn’t supposed to be scalding).

The customer is not always right and, when these things happen, the staff is faced with the inevitable dead end of having to confront someone’s meritless complaints. We usually choose the path of least resistance, but taking the high road requires us to prostrate ourselves before untoward guests. 

Some diners describe the way they like their meat cooked in abstract terms. “I like mine pink but not bloody, just a touch more to the rare side of medium.” Sadly for them, a line cook with twenty steaks on the grill doesn’t have time for an existential conversation about how each individual steak is cooked. The mnemonic scale of doneness (R-MR-M-MW-W) exists for a reason. If we don’t standardize a language for cooking meat, then we will spend the entire night recooking steaks.

Incorrect meat temperatures are the most common instances where food is sent back in restaurants, and so often the guest’s judgement is wrong. Chefs will rarely stand their ground and refuse to make the dish again when it was cooked properly the first time. In the hospitality game, we’re trained to give people what they want and sometimes that means putting our pride aside and doing it over again even when we know it was right the first time.

Be a Hero. Tip the Kitchen.

In a moderately upscale Yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, a thick plexiglass divider stood between me and the chefs like the bulletproof windows that protect bank tellers from robbery. I watched as the chefs leaned over the smoldering binchōtan coals behind it, tending to their skewers like gardeners. The smoke from the grill was grey and thick like a coal mine but the chefs would not leave their crops unattended.

When the parade of skewered food was finally over, I summoned the waiter. Discreetly, I asked if he would bring another bottle of the same sake, pour a glass for me and bring the rest of the bottle to the kitchen to thank the chefs. As I finished my meal, I raised a glass to them and we shared a brief “Kanpai” before they returned to the Zen garden of chicken sticks. I wondered, as I toasted to their brilliance, why acknowledging the kitchen wasn’t something I did more regularly at home.

The controversy over tipping customs rightly questions whether tips should be shared with the kitchen. It’s a hot topic of conversation right now in hospitality circles, but as we search for a workable solution an important question arises: Why doesn’t anyone ever tip the kitchen?

One answer is obvious—guests aren’t given the opportunity to designate a gratuity for chefs. Leaving more for the kitchen may seem like an added extravagance to diners who are already fatigued by the rising cost of restaurants. However, considering how many people are blown away nightly by delicious food, it’s a wonder that so few people ever make even a small gesture to thank the people that made everything taste so good.

Situating the kitchen out of the guests’ view severs the possible connection that diners have with the people cooking for them. Cooks themselves often feel uncomfortable even setting foot in the dining room because they know that their presence breaks the fourth wall. For various reasons, most restaurants don’t want you to see what goes on behind the kitchen doors. It’s part of the illusion.

The magic of a restaurant is that beautiful food just appears without your needing to see the blood and sweat that went into making it. But even in open kitchens it’s rare for a guest to acknowledge the cooks. It’s ingrained in us that we are responsible for paying servers but most of us never think for a moment about doing the same for kitchen staff, even though cooks as a whole are paid considerably less. It’s reminiscent of the theater, where the audience applauds the actors while all of the tech people—lighting, sound and props—who are integral to the show’s success are ignored.

In the past, kitchen jobs have been looked down upon as vocational and unworthy of the same recognition given to servers, bartenders and sommeliers. But the restaurant business has changed. Many of today’s line cooks have gone to culinary school and spent years cooking in top restaurants, preparing complex dishes that require more training and expertise. These jobs are now highly specialized and deserving of more monetary rewards. Of course, diverting money from the tip pool seems like an obvious solution to paying cooks more. But early attempts to share the wealth have been fraught with problems. It may take years for our industry to find systems to balance pay in such a way that makes everyone happy.

In the meantime, when you have an amazing food experience, send a manager back to the kitchen with a cash tip or some other offering as a way of saying thanks. Buy a gift card from the restaurant where you’re dining and give it to the cooks, who rarely have an opportunity to dine where they work. If you feel comfortable, see if someone will escort you back to the kitchen so you can thank them personally. Chefs genuinely appreciate when guests are grateful, even if there aren’t material rewards attached.

Without a viable solution to tip sharing, restaurants should consider an optional tip line for the kitchen to give guests the opportunity to reward chefs. Of course, it may create confusion about the typical customs but “hospitality included” models are confusing for guests too. How much of my bill actually went to rewarding the staff for service? Let’s face it, most restaurant owners cannot be trusted to pay their staff equitably. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be so many stories of underpaid cooks at some of the most profitable restaurants in the country.

Before you get all grouchy about being asked to tip more, just remember that the cost of your meal is kept artificially low by the substandard salaries of the kitchen staff. Since it so rarely occurs, even a small gesture to thank the kitchen will go a long way. So, be a hero. Because magic doesn’t make the food so delicious, the chefs do.