Another quick friday rant. Please feel free to ignore my whinging.
Last night I went out to a very popular new restaurant that happens to not take reservations. We got there at 6:25, was told that our party of five couldn't be seated until they were all present (fair enough), but that we'd be put on a list, and that there weren't any five-tops available yet anyway, so it won't make our wait any longer. And how long would that wait be? Oh, about 45 minutes—but it could be shorter!—I was told.
Our other three guests arrived at 6:40, so I went back to the desk to inform them that we were all present, so we'll be ready whenever they were. How much longer do you think it'll be? Anything clearing up? Oh, I'd say about 45 minutes, maybe less.
Got it. that's what you said 15 minutes ago, but things come up. Fair enough.
7:15, 35 minutes later, I go and check again. Sorry sir, things got confused because a large reservation cancelled at the last minute. I'd say about half an hour. I didn't quite understand how a) their no-reservations policy didn't actually seem to apply to everyone or b) how a large party not showing up could make all the walk-ins have to wait longer. Doesn't that mean that there are now more empty seats in the restaurant?
7:30 We're just waiting for a two top and a three top to clear up at the same time so that we can seat five people. Should be soon, there are two tables clearing up. Thanks. What does "finishing up" mean? 10 minutes? Half an hour? Are they eating dessert? They just got their food. I'd say half an hour. Jesus.
We eventually did get seated at 7:55, a full hour and a half after we arrived, and after we'd been led on four separate times.
I'm not the kind of person who minds waiting for a table at places like this. I understand that small restaurants can't always take reservations as it eats into their already slim bottom line. I get it, and I'm happy to go along with it, but if there is one rule a host/hostess should be required to learn it's this: it is always better to overestimate wait times than to underestimate. Always.
It's the Calvin and Hobbes rule of expectations: keep'em low, and you'll always be able to surpass them. A customer that gets seated after an hour when they were told an hour and a half feels like they just saved half an hour of their time. They'll be happy. They'll order like rich kings and make merry at your restaurant. On the other hand, bring customer expectations up by telling them it's only a 45 minute wait or that a table is "being cleared up" when clearly it's not, and you just end up making people crabby.
What's the worst host/hostess horror story you have?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.