Dining out is one of my great joys in life. New food, old friend, discovery, the mystery and excitement of it all. From 2020 to 2022, it was among the things I missed the very most about “normal” life.
And when dining came back in force, I wanted to be among those ensuring that the restaurant business would boon again. I bought vouchers during the times without any indoor dining, or those take home meal kits — whatever I could do to support — but I love the in house experience.
Obviously, dining is back now, but it feels different.
I fear, for better and worse, that the dining scene that’s come back has turned the tables a little bit. Almost everywhere I dine, “we’ll need the table back by X” signs are appearing, and twice now, I’ve had them enforced. Once, not so politely, despite a rather large tab and table.
Table Reservation Time Limits
There’s something very frustrating about having an 8PM reservation and turning up and being told that the table isn’t available and you’ll need to wait. The whole point of a reservation is somewhat a guarantee of timing or availability.
To curb this problem, restaurants are more increasingly relying on putting disclaimers in the reservation notes, telling people that a time limit will exist. A 6PM reservation may require the table returned by 8PM.
It makes sense to prevent people booking 7AM breakfast tables because they were too slow to book lunch at 12, and plan to have water for 5 hours until their friends arrive for lunch, but it raises questions in other instances.
I Get Why Restaurants Are Doing It
People tend to spend more in the front end of a meal than the latter end. The main courses and drinks tend to be more expensive than coffee and desert. Unless a table is opening bottle after bottle, that revenue declines by the minute at a point once the main courses come out.
A fresh table is a new chance to bring in revenue, and a dependable reservation time is a good way to encourage repeat visits and guest satisfaction. It all pretty much makes sense conceptually. I want restaurants to thrive, not just survive — and to pay their staff well.
But, I Hate It Sometimes
Conceptually, these table time limits are ok. The problem is, restaurants still get a bit overwhelmed. And yes, sometimes service just isn’t right.
If I have a table for two hours and it takes 45 minutes to get someone over to properly take an order, the chances of a few courses going down on time aren’t great. The table time limits tend to go up with larger sized tables, but often not by enough.
I was recently in one of my favorite London eateries, Nopi, where I’ve dined on many occasions and was very surprised when without warning, a team started circling the table. It truly felt like vultures ready to pounce. Had there been a 15 minute warning, I’d be a lot more understanding. But even then…
“We need the table back.”
The reservation was for a group of five and it was a very social catch up and meeting. It took a while to place drink orders and food here is really outstanding on every course, so we all ordered multiple courses.
Without shocking lingering, and with a fairly meaningful tab, I felt like I’d been asked to leave a department store for loitering. I said ” but wouldn’t you like me to pay me £400 tab first?”
I suppose I may be too focused on customer experiences and feelings, but dining is a form of hospitality in my opinion. Having a repeat customer who hasn’t even exceeded a time limit (yet), be effectively bum rushed out of a restaurant while dropping decent coin in a restaurant just feels wrong to me.
I wrote it off, but recently had another experience in another city where a two hour limit was placed on a table. This was a business dinner where a person showed up 15 minutes late, and then service was spotty at best. It took another 20 minutes to get an order in.
I feel at this point it’s worth noting that I’m not a lingerer. I don’t sit and fuss over wine lists before looking at a food menu. I’m a swift and efficient orderer, and try to order as much as possible at once to minimize pain points.
Maybe Data Will Help Bridge A Happy Medium?
I get that restaurants want to avoid someone booking a 9AM breakfast table and ordering water until 1130AM brunch starts, because they couldn’t get a 1130 booking. That’s wrong and gaming behavior.
But surely, surely, there’s a happy medium where customers enjoying a normal meal at a normal speed aren’t getting chased out in a hurry because of a T&C on a booking.
Maybe data driven solutions will help find the appropriate time, or will show any table reservation options based on average dining times of each person? It’s all subject to change, but I’ve gotta believe there’s a better way.