Dear Salty: I’m a new mom, and it’s been a while since I could go out for a long dinner with my girlfriends (who are also mostly moms of young kids). We finally got a dinner on the books last Thursday at a tapas restaurant and made a reservation for five of us. Three of us showed up on time, and the other two texted to say they were running 10 minutes late. Instead of taking us to our table, the hostess told the three of us we’d have to wait until our whole party was there.
There wasn’t much of a waiting area, just a small and very cold entryway. We had a reservation and we would have ordered drinks and appetizers right away if we’d been seated, so why did they make us wait? I saw at least one large open table. I tried explaining that we’d order right away after we sat down, but the hostess said this was the policy. Why do restaurants do this?
Dear Waiting Game,
This has to be one of the most misunderstood restaurant policies. And I can see why—every minute you’re standing in front of a busy host stand staring at your phone while other people are shown to their tables is like a tiny, annoying stabbing dagger in your heart.
But there are logical reasons for the no-seating-incomplete-parties policy, especially at very small and very busy restaurants. I personally don’t have to worry about this because the place where I work is big enough that we can seat people right away, but I checked in with some other industry friends about their restaurants’ seating protocol. A lot of them said that if there’s open space, they’ll seat partial parties because hey, they’re not trying to make you stand weirdly by the door. They might seat you and tell you that they’ll need you to clear the table by a certain point, so if your friends are super late, you’ll have to eat quickly. But my friends who work at small, always-booked restaurants say sometimes it’s just not possible to seat only part of your table.
The most common reason I heard for this is that “10 minutes away” doesn’t always mean 10 minutes away. If two people out of a party of six, say, don’t show up for 20 minutes, that group is now taking over a big table for a longer period of time than the restaurant expected. Sure, those four people might order apps right away, but the late couple is still delaying the overall time until everyone orders main courses and dragging out the length of time that table is occupied. There’s a narrow window for “flipping” tables (switching them from one reservation to the next) in small restaurants, sometimes as thin as 15 minutes. Late parties sometimes also mess with the kitchen’s flow, as parts of the table’s order come in at different times.
The second complaint I heard is that sometimes, “one couple is 10 minutes away” later turns into “yeah, they’re not coming.” So say your reservation was for a table of six, and the host seats four of you first. If, 30 minutes later, you tell the restaurant that actually, it’s just going to be the four of you after all, that just burned one of the dining room’s bigger tables. In that case, the restaurant might have to turn away a larger walk-in party because they seated your table of four at a six-top. There’s a lot more calculus to running a restaurant than the public understands.
Usually, if restaurants have a bar area, the host will offer to let the incomplete party grab drinks or appetizers there. Seems like the best-case scenario to me: You get drinks and food right away, but you’re not messing with the rhythm of the dining room while waiting for your friends to show up. If there was a bar area and the host didn’t offer it to your group, that’s weird.
My friends all wanted me to stress that they’re only enforcing the policy out of necessity. If they seated incomplete parties, they’d have to turn more tables away, or worse, the service and pace of food would be disjointed.
The best course of action is for everyone involved to be honest. You should be clear about how long you think it’ll take the rest of your party to arrive. You should be honest if they’re not coming. And in return, the host should be honest about how the restaurant can make you comfortable and any time constraints on when they’ll need your table to free up. If you ultimately decide you don’t want to eat there because they won’t seat you immediately, that’s within your rights.
Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: email@example.com