As restaurants opened back up for on-site dining following COVID restrictions last year, many put in place a time limit—often 60, 90, or 120 minutes, depending on the establishment—for how long guests could linger at their tables. My immediate reaction was, “How dare they tell me how long I can take to eat a meal?” But then I thought about it a little more, and I realized that there is an ideal amount of time to spend at a sit-down restaurant, regardless of pandemic restrictions.
If I compare the mealtime ritual that takes place at home versus the process of dining out, the actual amount of time spent eating is the same. When I dine at home, I flip through TV channels and streaming services until I find something to watch, and only then do I actually eat. The eating part really only tends to take up about 15 to 20 minutes of the program. The rest of the time is usually spent watching the screen or chatting with the person I’m eating with. This means that if you did, in fact, time out how long it takes for me to finish the average meal, I’d only reach about the 30-minute mark, and that’s being generous.
The same measurement applies to dining out. The amount of time it takes to be seated, order our food, and then wait for it to arrive is roughly same amount of time spent scrolling through streaming options. Once I actually start eating, especially if I’m hungry, the table is practically silent for a bit, and the meal is done about 10 minutes later. From there, it’s just about enjoying the atmosphere and the pleasure of the other person’s company.
If you’re a party of two, seated and served promptly, 55 minutes at a sit-down place is the sweet spot. For parties of four, I’d estimate about 75 minutes are needed. For parties of six or more, the typical restaurant standard of 90-120 minutes does make sense, since it’ll take longer for everyone to make decisions about what to order, and for all the meals to be prepped so that they land on the table at the same time.
Unless the person you’re dining with has a physical condition that requires extra time (and if so, the restaurant should definitely accommodate that), I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a party of two can be seated, eat their meal, enjoy some conversation, and be out the door within 55 minutes, without feeling rushed at all. Depending on the speed of the service and how busy the restaurant is when you go, that window of time might even allow for more than one round of drinks.
I’m not trying to rob you of your relaxing dining experience. I’m just saying you don’t need to guard your table for three whole hours, preventing others from getting a table and preventing your server from earning more tips for the night. Sticking to a reasonable window of time is also a good way to keep pace with your fellow diners; it’s a bit annoying to finish your meal and notice the person across from you is so busy talking or checking their phone that they haven’t even taken a bite. Restaurants that impose time limits know what they’re doing, and if you stick to that limit, it probably won’t feel like a time crunch.
There’s a balance to be struck here, and I think about an hour is perfect for two.