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.

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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.”

Image by Pierre Blaché from Pixabay

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.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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14 Comments

  1. If the server is late in getting your order, that’s on the restaurant. If your dinner companion is late, that’s on you. Also, most restaurants increase the table time based on the size of the party – 3-6 gets 2.5 hours, and larger party gets more.

    There are also more gracious ways to manage the situation. If the table is not ordering any additional items or drinks and are just sitting around, that’s usually the first table to get the limit enforced. However, if the group is still spending money, the restaurant may ask you to move to the bar to continue.

    Lastly, your £400 tab for 5 people is actually not a factor – if you were to spend £1000 for 5 people, that’s a different story.

    1. Agreed 100%. What dinner/drink tabs that seem large to us, actually aren’t to most restaurants cause they are only seeing a portion of that money after bills/expenses/insurance/food costs ect. Time limits have always existed at clubs in Vegas. Buy a bottle? You got the table for a couple of hours. Want it for longer? Buy another bottle or bounce.

  2. Just examined a dozen restaurants in Hawaii for a celebration meal for four people. Nearly all had limits. Some allowed only an hour and a half for two people and an extra half (or two hours) for four people. Was quite surprised at the short timeframes.

  3. Had dinner at one of my (formerly) favourite central London restaurants last week-one with a 2 hour limit on seating for my 20:00 booking. We were there on time, but were seated 15 minutes late as the table wasn’t ready. It then took another 15 minutes to get someone to take our drink order; that server ‘couldn’t take’ food order, but promised to send someone right over….20 minutes later, the drinks arrived, but still no one to take the food order. Cut to the chase-at 21:45 our mains finally arrived. And at 21:55 the server let us know they needed the table back. We pointed out the late seating and service issues and the fact that we were literally halfway through the main courses, with dessert already order. The manager came over and ACTUALLY PICKED MY PLATE UP OFF THE TABLE. Seriously. Picked it up, and told us we’d have to finish at the bar. With the pre-dinner drinks, starters, £125 bottle of wine, mains and bottled water, we were about £300 in at that point.
    Needless to say we simply walked out. Loudly. And will never, ever go back.

  4. Earlier this year at a dorset restaurant, despite slow service – we were moved off our table almost minutes after we put our main course cutlery down. We were told desert could be eaten in the bar area. But their were bar stools only available..no effort or concern that one of our party of two was disabled.
    When we wrote of our experience (on TA) we were advised 2 persons get 75 minutes table, but 3-4 get 90 minutes.

  5. I’d like to hear from someone in Paris. I find the whole table time limit thing to be extremely inhospitable. The French have always had an outdoor café policy that if you bought one espresso you could sit there all day. I wonder if they are doing something like this. I highly doubt it. I recently dined at a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles and as my partner and I were seated we were told we had 90 minutes. I have not been back to that restaurant nor will lie.

  6. Vote with your feet (patronage). If a substantial number feel as you, policies will change, or the establishment will go out of business.

  7. Quit your whining. – 2 Hours is more than enough time – period. Show up when you are supposed to, have an idea as to what you want to eat, and if others are late – then too bad. If you need more time to chat, visit the bar after eating. These are places of business – you expect your reservation time to be honored, as do others. Too damn many selfish people spoil it for all.

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