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Gripe of the Day: Reservations Are a Two-Way Street

"Is it reasonable for a restaurant to threaten to charge you $150 if you are late for a reservation only to make you wait 45 minutes?"

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[Illustrations: Robyn Lee]

Here's what happened to me last weekend. You tell me whether or not you think the situation was unreasonable.

A large group of friends and I wanted to have a casual dinner on the Lower East Side as a send off for a friend who is moving out of the country this week. We called a small, not-too-trendy spot that seemed likely to be able to accommodate us and asked for a reservation for 18 people, they told us that in order to seat a party that large, we'd need to order a fixed price menu, that the menu would be $50 a head, and that we'd need to give them a $450 non-refundable deposit in case we didn't turn up.

Before agreeing to a sum this large, we decided to be extra sure of our numbers, so we made people RSVP and told them that if they didn't do so, they would not be able to turn up at the last minute. Turned out our number was actually 12 people.

Upon calling the restaurant back, they said no problem, we can accommodate 12, you can order off the a la carte menu, and we'll only charge you a $150 deposit. Seems totally reasonable. They also stipulated that they'd only hold the reservation 15 minutes, after which we'd lose it and they'd keep our deposit. Also reasonable; After all, a restaurant is a business, and we made a deal with them.

Saturday night comes and our large party arrives around 9:15 p.m. We called ahead to inform them that we were running a little late. No problem.

They said our table in the back still needed to be set up, so we'd have to wait. Upon inquiring and glancing at the setup in the back at around 9:30, someone in our party realized that the space the restaurant was planning on giving us would not have fit 12 people. We brought this to the manager's attention, she agreed, apologized, and told us that they'd set up a different table in the front section of the restaurant. It would only take them five minutes.

We finally took our seats at a little before 10 p.m., nearly a full hour after our reservation time (though remember, we were also late by 15 minutes after calling ahead).

Here's the real problem: a little after 11 p.m., we were supposed to be back in Chelsea, meeting a few more friends at an apartment. Without us, they would not be able to get in. This left us less than an hour to get our food and pay our bill. I communicated this to the waiter who told us that in that case, we should order only specific things on the menu that can be prepared quickly.

I said OK, and ordered two of each of the four main courses and the appetizers that he suggested. I told him that he didn't need to course them out and just bring them to us as fast as possible. He said no problem, they'll start cooking them right away.

I started checking my clock and taking more careful note of the time after this exchange. Just past 10. At 10:09 p.m., a few plates of jerk chicken wings (quite good) and a couple other small appetizers arrived and were quickly finished. 30 minutes later, no sign of our main courses, nor any sign of our waiter (we were seated in the front of the restaurant, he was working in the back). We contemplated paying for our drinks, bailing, and ordering in pizza, but decided to give it a little while longer. Finally, 10:53 p.m., a full 45 minutes after the appetizers, our main courses arrived.

To be fair, the food was pretty good. Unfortunately three of us had to get up and leave a few minutes after it arrived in order to go let a few friends, a sister, and a dog into the apartment (it was a very cold night). The rest of the party stayed and finished their meal. The check came with no further apologies.

My wife pointed me towards this episode of Seinfeld:

If there had been no money deposited for the reservation, I would have had much less of a problem with it. But by asking us for $150, they are telling us: "We want to make a deal with you, but we don't know if we can trust you. Therefore, we're asking you for collateral on this transaction."

To then break that deal and follow it up by making another commitment you can't keep (the waiter assured me we'd be done by 11) is just plain irresponsible and something best left for the airlines (that's a whole other gripe).

I do understand the importance of restaurants taking deposits to ensure that no-shows don't happen. I'm sure all of us non-schmucks out there agree that the very idea of some inconsiderate jerk making reservations at three or four restaurants on the same night just to be able to choose at the last minute is blood-boiling. But reservations are a two way street. They are a deal between two parties, and both parties should honor their end.

The question is this: Is it reasonable for a restaurant to threaten to charge you $150 if you are late for a reservation only to make you wait 45 minutes before seating you and nearly two hours before all of your food arrives, or should we as New York restaurant-goers understand that juggling seats in a busy space is inherently difficult and just roll with the punches? What's the right course of action for a customer to take when this happens?

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