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On the House: Why We Need the Table Back

On the House is our regular column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Today, your proprietor is Mr. William Tigertt of Freemans.

2006_09_onethehouseA.jpgAfter multiple Eater complaints department entries about the early seating crunch and then the whole Gordon Ramsay time limit, I felt like I should address this topic.

The basic scenario is a large party comes in for an early dinner reservation at say 6:30 and the guests are told that the restaurant needs the table back by 9:00. The dinner progresses, the clock ticks, and the dinners are shooed out to the bar with coffees in hand and petit fours crumbs still hanging from their chins. Everyone is pissed off and multiple vows to never again patronize Restaurant X are sworn.

So let’s talk about first seating reservations. There is fault to on both sides of this issue.

First of all, let's understand the basic economics. This is New York. Restaurant leases like all other real estate are incredibly expensive. A good restaurant with a lease signed in the past five years in a downtown location cannot survive without two to three seatings on prime time nights (Thurs to Sat). It doesn’t matter how much money you’re spending or how special the occasion is that you’re celebrating; that rent is due and people have to be paid. The restaurant has to have that table back by nine and there is no way around it. In a perfect world all restaurateurs would their own buildings (preferably a picturesque little château with an herb garden and al fresco with views of rolling hills) and rent wouldn’t be an issue. If restaurants could afford to not book multiple parties on a night, and be able to avoid these difficult encounters, we would.

The other problem is that these situations normally happen with large parties of 12 or more guests. If a table of four runs late, there is normally another table that incoming second seating reservations can be transferred to, but when you only have one table or private room that seats large parties there is literally no where else for them to go. Corralling and organizing large groups of people is also more difficult by nature.

All that said, this is the hospitality business. As restaurateurs, we do understand this, contrary to what some may think. The house should do everything they can to make the experience as pleasant and smooth as possible. The house should budget enough time for any guests to come in and have a full dining experience. Based on the type of restaurant that time is normally 1 ½ for quick service counter style to 3 hours on the outside for fine dining. The house should inform the guests if there is an out time on the table for the next reservation when they sit down. I know some people feel that this is an imposition, but trust me it’s better to know when you sit down then try to broach the “you’ve been here for three and a half hours; now please leave” conversation after six bottles of wine and two rounds of port. So although the house should let you know ahead of time, they shouldn’t come by reminding you every ten minutes like an eating version of Beat the Clock. Ideally should be lee way and grace in the whole process.

As a guest, you should be told when you make the reservation if there is an out time for a big party. If this is a problem for you (maybe you know your friends are going to need a long time to catch up, talk, and drink etc.) you should book another time slot or find a different restaurant. There is a reason that these early reservations are easier to get. The problems normally occur when a single party organizer books a reservation, agrees to anything the reservationists says in order to get into the hot restaurant on a weekend, and then shows up en masse with out communicating anything to the other guests in their party. “What do you mean we need to leave by nine?” This problem is often compounded by the fact that guests frequently show up late for early reservations potentially cutting the two and half hour time budgeted to an hour and half. It’s natural that many guests feel slighted when nine o’clock rolls around and they are asked to finish their coffees at the bar.

My advice is just to do your homework when booking reservations for large groups. Read the fine print on the paperwork if there is reservations contract you have to sign. Communicate to your friends if there is a time limit and encourage them to be on time (or if they’re like my friends tell them a half an hour earlier so they actually show up on the time). I also suggest picking a second stop on the group itinerary such as a nearby bar to convene to after dinner in case your group will want to continue on with their night out. It’s always easier to motivate people when you have a specific destination. If you feel that your server is rushing you, ask to speak to the manager. No one should be hustled especially with the prices of dining out in New York. At the same time, tables in prime time are some of the most expensive real estate in the city and dining out is a rental agreement, not ownership.


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