Restaurant hosting is a difficult job. As members of the League of Underappreciated Workers, they join audio engineers, bus drivers, and registered nurses as those who are only acknowledged on the rare occasions that they screw things up. It's a rough go, and hosts and hostesses are expected to do it all with a smile on their face lest they publicly suffer the wrath of the dreaded Yelper.
What's going on behind those smiles at the host stand? Service with a smile is the name of the game, but find out what the hosts are really thinking. I spoke with several hosts at restaurants all over the country to get inside their heads. They all wished to remain anonymous, but here's what they want to tell you:
1. On OpenTable
OpenTable is more than an online reservation-making service—all restaurants you see on the website are required to use the company's proprietary floor management system, which means leasing hardware and using OpenTable-specific software. What the service offers, beyond the obvious ease-of-use benefits to restaurant-goers, is a solid platform within which the host or hostess does most of their work.
And while the conveniences of OpenTable are helpful on both sides of the host stand, there's a big secret most restaurants are afraid to tell you: they'd rather you not use it. Reservations made through OpenTable cost the restaurant a dollar per guest, which stacks up quickly over the course of a night that might see several hundred guests coming through the doors. Further, not all available reservations can be seen on the site; restaurants often hold tables back from the site when they suspect they can fill them with phone reservations, saving them from OT's service fees.
In short, always try first to call in your reservations.
2. On "We Cannot Seat You Until Your Whole Party Is Present."
Many restaurants implement this policy, which has a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Here's why they do it: people are amazingly flaky, and restaurants lose tons of money because of it. If a restaurant seats your party at a four-top, and the other half of your double date decides not to show, they've now left two seats empty for the next two-plus hours.
It happens more often than you'd think, and empty seats hemorrhage money. In the comments section of this article, San Francisco food critic Michael Bauer incites debate amongst his readers on this topic and one thing is clear: restaurants aren't good at communicating why this policy is in place. Probably because it makes them look like cheapskates.
3. On "Camping," or Sitting at Your Table for a Longer-Than-Normal Time
"It's okay if you're going to be a while," said a nameless hostess from Austin, Texas. "Just let us know so I can do my job." On busier nights, the host is playing a game of statistics—with a limited number of tables of a certain size, seats are reserved based on an average meal time of around two hours (dependent on the type of dining). Not knowing when a table will leave gives a lot to chance, and can result in long waits for those with reservations. This makes the host and restaurant look bad and puts a bitter taste in the mouths of customers. Comped glasses of prosecco only go so far to wash that taste out.
Wait times are often gauged in terms of where seated tables are in their meals, so if you're planning on talking with fellow guests over a long cup of coffee after you've received your check, tell someone. The more you can do to communicate your plans with your server (who will relay that information to the host stand), the better for everyone involved.
4. On Cancellations
It may seem like a minor thing, but your cancellation can save a restaurant a lot of money. Canceling a reservation just 15 minutes before it was scheduled will offer an extra half hour or more in which the host(ess) can give that table to other guests (the 15 minutes before the reservation plus the 15 or so they would hold it hoping you'll show up late). That can easily mean another turn (that's restaurant-speak for "use by a customer") out of that table for the night. The larger the party, the higher the stakes.
5. On Same-Siders
Everyone appreciates a good love story. Everyone, that is, except your host. "Same-siders" are what some call the lovey-dovey guests that sit on the same side of their two-top rather than across from each other. Aside from the fact that this can crowd valuable banquette seating, making other guests uncomfortable, it usually indicates a much longer table time, as couples like this tend to be more excited to gaze longingly into other's eyes than at the pork chop in front of them.
6. On Seating in an Empty Restaurant
Just because the restaurant is half-empty now, doesn't mean it will be in 20, 30 or 40 minutes when the 7 o'clock rush hits. If you're walking in, you can't expect to grab any empty table, no matter how many there appear to be. "Even worse are the people that just waltz right in and walk in," bemoaned our Texan hostess. "How would you feel if the table you reserved was given away 20 minutes before your reservation?"
7. On Entitlement
"Man, people are so entitled," lamented a hostess from an Oakland, California, restaurant. "Remember that they call you a 'guest' for a reason. Act as such." In fact, many of the hosts I asked for contributions here brought up the word "entitlement." Understanding the challenges of running a restaurant will go a long way toward improving your experience.
8. On Non-Eaters
Are there going to be non-eaters in your party? Let your host(ess) know. Some restaurants have (arguably excessively strict) policies that require all guests be dining to receive a reserved seat. It's better to figure this out when you make the reservation than to be disappointed when you arrive.
9. On Dietary Restrictions
On a related note: make sure the restaurant knows of any dietary restrictions your party has at the time the reservation is made. A San Francisco host shared this story: "We actually had a five-top come in last week and each customer had a different dietary restriction: one was a pescatarian, one was vegan, one was lactose-intolerant, and two were gluten-free. We had to jump through some serious hoops for this table to leave happy, and it came at the expense of other customers." While this is an extreme example, most restaurants are happy to accommodate dietary restrictions, as long as they have some forewarning.
10. On Being the Last Table
Remember that if you're the last table still seated after a restaurant has closed, the likely-minuscule profit they are making from your meal will evaporate quickly in the face of extended labor costs. An extra half hour as the last table in a restaurant could cost a restaurant five or more man-hours in labor, which could very well exceed the number on your bill. While it is well within your rights to stick around, and smart restaurants will absorb this as a cost of doing business properly, don't forget that this is a business of dollars and cents, especially if it's a small business you love.
Note: All opinions in this article reflect only those that anonymously contributed their thoughts to the author. None of the opinions were gathered from any employees of the restaurants with which the author is associated, nor do they represent the opinions of said restaurants.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone and Co-Director of Beer at the Monk's Kettle and Abbot's Cellar restaurants in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.