WATCH and learn.

I have a tip for people who prefer to dine out: BUY A WATCH.

There are two main reasons for this.

(1) This little device will tell you which times are prime for dining in a restaurant. (No, that’s not true. But I will, in a second. And a watch will help you execute my instructions.)

(2) If aligned with the rest of the world, it will keep you posted on how many minutes you have left to wait.

It’s a genius invention, really. I often wonder who came up with it.

Anyway, allow me to elaborate.

You know how when you were little, mom had breakfast waiting for you when you woke up in the morning (or slapped a microwaveable breakfast sandwich in your tiny little paw as you scrambled onto the bus)? And then, a few hours later, the nuns and teachers would herd you and your friends down the tiled hallways to the cafeteria where you would commence your daily attempt at trading your carrot sticks for Jenny’s Butterscotch Krimpets? And then after school, you would arrive home and mom would again have a meal waiting for you as you finished your homework?

Admittedly, some of us had slightly altered experiences, but the take-home point is this: We have all been conditioned to eat at the same times.

Think about it.

We don’t often stop to think about why, but we’re usually hungry in the morning after an exhausting six hours of sleep. Later, our stomachs begin their grumbling between the hours of 11:30 and 1:30 (ish) and eventually we’ll even reluctantly cease our riveting tasks to relieve the pressure. Finally, I don’t know about you, but when I get out of work or class, I’m walking straight to my fridge and whipping myself up a bit of anything I can find that’s even remotely edible.

And is it any different on the weekends? Nope. We’re conditioned.  We eat at roughly the same. time. every. single. day.

Which brings me to my first point.

DO NOT GET PISSY WITH ME WHEN YOU WALK INTO MY RESTAURANT AT 7:30 PM AND FIND A WAIT.

Guess what. You aren’t the only person whose stomach operates on this schedule. In fact, we can count on a religious cycle every single day in our restaurant: From 6:30 am until 8:30 am, there is barely anyone at the tables. Duh. Then, 8:50 am brings in a few ambitious folks and until around 10 (on the weekends), we have a slow but steady flow. The calm continues until around 11:45 am, when

BAM!

The lunch rush begins.

If you want to EAT at a popular restaurant in DC around lunchtime,…. Don’t go to a popular restaurant in DC around lunchtime. Sorry. That’s all I can give you. You will wait. It may be an “off” day and you’ll only have to wait 15-20 minutes, but trust me– you will wait.

Same goes for dinner. We can count on basically no customers between 2:30 pm and 6:00 pm, but once the dinner rush begins around 6:30, there’s no goin’ back. You will be waiting. If you don’t want to wait, play it smart and come in before the rush OR after 8:45 pm, when the rush dies down again.

(Keep in mind, it is ill-advised to eat after 8 pm).

On that note, folks, a 15-minute wait is not even considered a wait in the restaurant industry. It’s literally enough time to grab a busser and have him clean off the table for you. So do NOT give the host grief when s/he tells you it will “just be 15 minutes”. This is not your kitchen. If you have a problem waiting for your food, DO NOT GO TO A RESTAURANT. Stay at home and make yourself a sandwich. Once you enter our territory, you’re on our turf and you play by our rules. Which means waiting for us to clean off a table. For you. 

So, the moral of this part of the story is: Choose your dining time wisely.

Do not go to a restaurant during peak hours expecting to be seated immediately. It is NOT going to happen.

And don’t throw a hissy fit at the staff. They’ll move you down on the list.

PART II: I’ll make this one short and sweet.

If a host tells you “The wait is going to be about 40-45 minutes”, they are not lying.

According to their seating/waiting chart, there will be at least a 40-minute wait. Now, granted, some people may have decided not to wait, in effect moving you up on the list, but as far as you’re concerned, you’re in it for the long haul if you stick around.

That said, do NOT commence “hovering” after 6 minutes.

And absolutely do not get frustrated after nine.

The host told you your wait time. Look at your watch and react accordingly.

If it’s been 47 minutes and you were told 40, patiently approach the host and ask how it’s looking. They should have the decency, though, to let you know beforehand if people aren’t moving. (See: “Camping“.)

I have so many people begin getting angry when I’ve given them a 30-minute quote and they’ve been waiting for less than ten minutes. I understand that time flies when you’re having fun, but dear Lord let me do my job in peace.

If it’s that bad, leave and try it again some other day.

But beware of the time before you do.

(P)reserving Sanity

OpenTable.com.

Such an amazing invention.

If you haven’t used it (or don’t have the app on your phone’s home screen), I wholeheartedly suggest doing so immediately– just so you can experience the exhilaration of telling someone else “This is when I want to eat, and this is where I shall do it!”

As you walk into that restaurant like royalty, pushing all of those “poor commoners” aside, send a note of thanks to the inventors of OpenTable for allowing you to look so freakin’ cool tonight.

You. Are. Welcome.

That said, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Shh. It’s between us, okay?

IT IS NOT COOL TO BE LATE FOR A RESERVATION.

I’ve mentioned before that a host’s job involves a LOT of logic and strategizing. I am VERY concerned with getting reserved parties to their seats as soon as they walk through the door. Yes. I want you to look cool in front of all of these people, too.

I usually block off a table about an hour before the party is supposed to come in, having learned that people tend to overstay their welcome (see: “Camping“) and insistent on providing the best experience for each of our customers.

So guess what it does to my blood pressure when a reservation is late and doesn’t call ahead to let us know?

Here’s the thing: The creators of OpenTable were not only thinking of customers when they invented their service; they were thinking of the restaurant, too.

In fact, I’m convinced that they were hosts themselves. Why? Because they were insightful enough to devise a system for “punishing” people who failed to be responsible diners.

This is how OpenTable works:

(1) Make your reservation on OpenTable.com

(2) Restaurant receives reservation via OpenTable technology & suggests tables for your party size

(3) You show up.

(4) If you don’t show up, we have two options:

(4a) “CANCEL”: This is the action taken when you call in and tell us you will no longer be able to join us for your reserved meal; No repercussions are administered.

(4b) “NO SHOW”: This is the action taken when, after 20 minutes past your reserved arrival time, you have yet to materialize in our restaurant; Repercussions to follow.

When a restaurant hits the “No Show” button on your reservation, OpenTable records the information and marks it as a strike against you. If you have two strikes, you’re barred from making reservations through OpenTable for a specified amount of time.

Luckily for customers, there is an easy solution to such a potential catastrophe!: If you are not going to make a reservation (or will be late), call the restaurant and let them know. Because you do not want to get on OpenTable’s bad side.

Why?

Along with providing a great service for restaurant-goers, OpenTable also gives diners rewards (!). Every time you make (and keep) a reservation, you rack up Dining Rewards, and when you have enough, OpenTable will start sending you gift certificates that can be used at almost any restaurant in the city.

So, basically, OpenTable will pay you for being a good customer.

Can’t beat that.

Anyway, back to my original rant. If you’re going to be late for your reservation (or are too busy making out with that new neighbor down the hall to make it to dinner tonight), just call. That’s all.

I’ve had people walk in two hours after their reservation and unapologetically tell me, “Oh, we had a reservation for two hours ago; sorry we’re late”… only to learn that, unfortunately, I couldn’t hold their table for them (gasp!), but I can add them to the wait list like everybody else if they like?

You wouldn’t believe the indignant looks I get.

I am SO sorry there are other people on this planet. Hopefully it doesn’t inconvenience you too much. Now, please step to the side while I greet these folks.

I digress…

I have to interrupt my regular rant to inject some form of positive energy into my discussion: There are some people who make working in the restaurant industry bearable, if not downright rewarding. These people usually come in the form of old men, but can resemble any age, walk of life, or profession.

Yesterday, as my shift was ending, I had a party of twelve call in and say they’d be there in about 30 minutes and could I arrange for seating for them? I said I’d do that for them, since I didn’t want the little ones to be fussy for them, and told them that as soon as the two parties got up in the front of the restaurant, we’d push the tables together and clear a large area for them.

When they showed up 35 minutes later, both of the parties were still there (see last post re: camping), so I apologized and told them we would work as fast as we could with what we had. When one party got up, my busser and I launched ourselves into clearing the mess and re-setting the table so that at least part of the group could sit. I went out and told the waiting party and they figured out who would go in and who would wait at the bar for the other half of the table to clear.

It was decided that the men would stay at the bar (later, I realized there was a reason for that) while the women and children sat down in comfort…much like the Titanic. Without the iceberg.

I went back out and joked around with the waiting men a bit until the other table finally got up. While we waited for it to be cleared, the men asked me about myself and told me a bit about their own lives. Afterwards, one man thanked me for being “very pleasant”– and I responded, honestly, with “Ah, not a problem”. Because it wasn’t. They hadn’t complained once even though I had “reneged” on my promise of seating. In fact, they seemed happy to have their ‘man time’ at the bar while they waited for the table to be cleared. I, for one, was appreciative of them.

Interactions like these make my job so much easier and really make the experience better for the customer, too. It just takes genuine interaction and the acknowledgement that we’re all trying to do our job here and get you seated– if you can just be patient with the unexpected circumstances of life.

Can I bring you a tent?

There’s a term in the restaurant industry (or will be, if my boss and I made it up): It’s called “camping”. Camping refers to a party at a restaurant that refuses to vacate their seats. The term comes from the phrase “Oh, you look like you’ll be here awhile. Can I bring you a tent?”. Camping can include multiple diners or a single patron who has become engrossed in a novel or mere people-watching.

Details don’t matter.

What matters is the fact that while we’re glad you feel so comfortable in our restaurant that you’ve decided to apply for a post office box at the address, you are single-handedly ruining our entire floor plan seating system.

Let me break this down for people who have had no experience in the service or restaurant industry.

As a host, my job is to do the following:

(1) Take names,

(2) Give “quotes” (translation: estimates) of wait times,

(3) Survey the floor, taking note of where people appear to be in their meal and who looks like they might cease conversation in the next how-many minutes,

(4) Perform mathematical calculations to determine probabilities of when people might finish eating and decide to get up,

(5) Conduct damage control on waiting customers who are impatiently awaiting their turn to enter premises and commence dining,

(6) Keep track of reservations in an effort to provide timely seating amidst the chaos of waiting customers, and

(7) Help bus tables to ensure those waiting get to their seats within the quoted time frame.

If you haven’t put 2 and 12 together yet, our job entails math. Real-live math. And not just math, but downright logic and strategic maneuvering.

So. When a customer decides that she simply must present her entire 260-slide PowerPoint of photos from her recent trip to Peru to her girlfriend-whom-she-hasn’t-seen-in-12-days-and-won’t-see-again-until-tomorrow at our table, it throws off the entire system we’ve got going for (get ready for more restaurant lingo!) “turning tables”– that is, getting people in, down, eating, up, and out in a relatively pre-established amount of time.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we don’t want you to enjoy your experience with us. After all, that’s what we’re here for– to make your experience as pleasant as possible. However, keep in mind that–and I know this is extremely difficult to grasp for many–you are not the only one here. In fact, there is a whole line of people out in that waiting area just dying for the chance to enter through those magical doors and experience what you’re experiencing right now…and have been for the past three hours.

It all goes back to empathy. (See: Servers Down)

I firmly believe, and I’ve said it before, that our country would benefit from the shared experience of the service industry. We are severely lacking in the Empathy Department and exposure to the intricacies of the restaurant industry provides worlds of insight into the lives of others. I, for one, have become (a) less tolerant of (b) those who have no empathy for others. Which I think (?) means I myself have more empathy for others…in a twisted… sort… of way.

But regardless, I know that when I go to a restaurant, I am expected to do my business and get out. I am certainly expected to enjoy myself, but at the end of the day, restaurants are businesses with systems and protocol just like the rest. And I know, too, that there is a line of people downstairs waiting for my table. Therefore, I never dilly-dally.

Tip #2: Enjoy your meal and let others do the same.

Tip #2.5: Don’t be greedy.

Oh, and finally, there is nothing “romantic” about a couple who shares a FOUR-HOUR conversation over a dinner that lasted all of 46 minutes.

Not cute. At all.

I’d like to propose the following: Get a room. Or the nearest Starbucks.

Unless that restaurant is empty save for you two and two other tables, don’t be THAT guy. (I say two because while expectations are more relaxed when there are plenty of open tables available for other customers, you also don’t want to be the last ones in the restaurant, keeping it from closing at normal hours. At the very least, if you must stay and chat, PAY YOUR BILL FIRST so your waiter can “get cut” (read: go home)).

For reference, the following are typical eating times for different party sizes (all of which depend on meal prep times, of course):

(1 person): 35-45 minutes

(2 people): 45 minutes – one hour

(3 people): one hour – one hour and 15 minutes

(4 people): one hour – one hour and a half

(5-7 people): one hour and a half – 2 hours

(8+ people): one hour and 45 minutes – 2 hours and 15 minutes

[Notice that adding more people does NOT increase your allotted time substantially– this is because meals are brought out in one gesture, not individually. Account for (a) Menu review, (b) Ordering, (c) Preparation, (d) Delivery, (e) Clean-up, (f) Conversation and Dessert, and (g) Check drop.]

Servers Down

“Actually, I’d like that table over there. The booth. By the window.”
As a hostess and server at Eastern Market’s self-proclaimed “real American classic joint”, I hear this phrase about thirty times a week, typically in a snappy, entitled tone with little indication of remorse for the ensuing inconvenience.

That’s because most people fail to realize the inconvenience their seemingly harmless demands actually cause.

I blame this on lack of exposure and experience.

Spending the entirety of my college career working in the service industry as a bartender for extra cash and surrendering a summer to a position in Guest Relations in North Carolina, I serve for the personal interaction, the supplemental income, and the exercise it affords me. While I have generally enjoyed gaining exposure and proficiency in the restaurant and guest relations industries, the experience has not been consistent sunshine and rainbows and I certainly have other plans for my Ivy League degree.

Last May, I moved down to the District from Philadelphia to pursue my Ph.D. In order to survive in the city, I immediately applied for a bartending position at an Eastern Market restaurant. Having devoted over six years of my life to this arena,  I am more than familiar with the grievances of employment in the service industry.

I would now like to draw attention to just a few of the intricacies of the industry that most fail to realize, in the hopes that it will make at least one person more aware of the difficulties associated with service industry employment.

Exhibit A: Tipping is not just for cows.

Everyone in this industry goes through a sort of hazing period, if you will, during which they become completely disillusioned with humanity and the seeming indifference of mankind. Paying the bill is not the part where you let us know in a passive-aggressive manner that our service was mediocre, at best. It should be the part where you consider how much multi-tasking goes into our position and how much we have sincerely tried to make your experience a positive one. Considering a twenty percent tip on a $30 bill will pay for little over a gallon of gas these days, we could really use every dollar we can accumulate when we put in the effort to do our job well.

People should also realize that at many restaurants, servers make their living on tips exclusively. There is no eight-dollars-an-hour-plus-tips mantra at most restaurants and the money we walk with at the end of a grueling ten-hour shift is the full stop of that stint.

A less-than-twenty-percent tip is understandable  if the server was miserable and unaccommodating, but if we look like we’re genuinely trying, please don’t take it upon yourself to “teach us a lesson about life”. We just see it as a lack of appreciation on your part.

Exhibit B: Believe it or not, we’ve got a system.

No, we do not seat you in the back corner because we hate you. We do it because the server in this front section was just triple-sat and if we seat you here their head will literally explode. And that’s just more for us to clean up.

Nothing infuriates me more than people who walk into a restaurant and tell the hostess where they will be enjoying their meal for the next hour. See those seating charts? They tell us where you will sit. Not you.

Diners need to understand that we really do try to accommodate patrons’ requests; however, sometimes you just need to go with the flow and enjoy the experience, regardless of the “uncomfortable” back rests. If they were that uncomfortable, do you think we’d have incorporated them into the décor?

Exhibit C: People assume all servers are sub-human and have generally failed at “real life”.

Reality check: the majority of my fellow servers and bartenders have additional 9-to-5 jobs or they are pursuing Masters degrees or Ph.D.’s. I always marvel at the treatment we receive when patrons act on their instinctive assumptions.

Mind you, I’ll be the first to admit that even I find myself disparaging my own servers on occasion. But my experience in the service industry quickly puts my instincts in check and I make it a point to tip generously on good service, an act of commiseration for their oftentimes unrewarded labor.

My experience in the service industry has fostered not only an appreciation for the vexations of service employees, but also an awareness of the potential policy implications of such frustrations.

It is my very strong opinion that everyone should find employment in the service industry for at least a three-month period during their high school or college careers. Not only will this provide the work ethic we as Americans seem to have lost since the second World War, but it will instill in youngsters—and, subsequently, their adult counterparts—an appreciation for industriousness, as well as an enduring sympathy for others.

Servers’ complaints are admittedly miniscule when compared to the grander scheme of war and global crisis, but I firmly believe that every interpersonal disaster begins with a basic lack of compassion. Exposure to the service industry, in my opinion, has the potential to remedy that indifference.

In the meantime, throw in a few extra bucks the next time you dine out. Go ahead—make my day.

Just the tip.

How much do you think a server should be tipped at a high-end restaurant?

Many people take issue with the fact that at most five-star restaurants, they only “see” their waiter for 15 minutes out of the whole meal. Most of the rest of their interactions are with sommeliers, bussers, and the staff who bring out their food. Their own server seems more like a lifeguard or babysitter than a server.

What many fail to realize, however, is the extensive knowledge these individuals have to maintain and develop in order to even GET their job. Essentially, you could ask your server any question on the face of the earth and they MUST be able to answer it articulately AND masterfully. There is a lot of pressure that comes with working at high-end restaurants and most diners fail to recognize that stress, basing their judgment on physical interaction alone.

Thus, the next time you decide to go all out for your dining experience, take a little time to indulge, asking your server for recommendations and clarification on specific items on the menu. You’ll get a GLIMPSE of how difficult his or her job really is. And maybe you’ll reconsider that 11% tip.

Hi. I work here.

Rule #1 of being-the-best-customer-a-restaurant-has-ever-seen: DO NOT do the staff’s job for them.

More specifically, YOU ARE NOT A HOST. Don’t pretend.

The other day, I was having a pretty decent day at work– normal, congenial people and nice conversation. Most importantly, the day was abounding in patience.

That is, until the Terrible Trifecta walked in.

As soon as these three OBVIOUS douchey grad students (I’m assuming which school they belonged to, but I won’t name any names for fear of retaliation) walked up to me, I knew I was in for a treat. I mean, you could smell the ‘tool’ emanating from their preppy-but-just-edgy-enough-to-be-trendy-to-someone-who-cares clothes. It reeked.

I digress.

The one male walks up to me and says “Table for three”.

Harmless enough.

Then, the sky turned a weird yellow and things got freaky.

I responded with “Sure, it’s going to be about 40 minutes right now”.

The guy looked at me and I could literally read what he was thinking slash about to say to me.

“Why?”

“Well, because there are FIVE TABLES waiting before you and everyone who’s in here just sat down. So. It will be about 40 minutes”.

Looking anxiously over my shoulder like an 8-year-old boy at a peep show, he pointed to the table right behind me and said, “Well, what about THAT one?”

I didn’t even turn around.

“Well, see,” I explained, smile pasted on my face and blood pressure rising, “that table — AND THE OTHER THREE [that I know you’re going to point out when you’re done annoying me right this second] OVER THERE — are going to go to the people who are on THIS list ahead of you guys. Now, if you guys want to just wait out in the lobby, I’ll call you as soon as a table is available”.

Turn around and begin ignoring.

Well, evidently “Wait out in the lobby” translates to “Hover around the hostess stand for 26 minutes while planning your next move” in douchebag speak.

Because that’s exactly what they did.

For 38 minutes.

Not only that, but they sporadically sent one of the goons to “surreptitiously” check out the tables’ status while pretending to go to the bathroom.

They must have thought I was blind AND stupid not to pick up on what they were doing.

Honestly, I will freely admit that I had no intention of accommodating their request for seating in ANY capacity. In fact, I was so incredibly irritated by their relentless hovering and pestering me over how I was doing my job that I told my manager to seat them when their name was eventually called. I just couldn’t deal with them, for fear that I’d smack one across the face without thinking.

So, moral of the story: Don’t try to do the hostess’s job. I promise s/he’s competent and I PROMISE there is a system completely unbeknownst to you that will get you into your precious seat within the next century. IF you’re patient. If you can’t handle that expectation, you’ll likely end up waiting as long as the host so chooses. Think of it as Time Out.