From the other side of the restaurant front desk

In his blog post Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, Frank Bruni of the NY Times recounts a long and unpleasant wait for a table, where he says the front desk person didn't handle the situation well. I worked for a while as one of those hapless front desk persons, or FDP as I'll call them here, at a very busy NYC restaurant. Here's my take from the other side of that front desk.

Being an FDP at a restaurant that doesn't get full is not hard. The restaurant I worked at was usually only about 80% full on Saturday evenings, and those were like a night off for us. (This is why quite a few not that good restaurants have giggly cute girls with pea-size brains and such as FDPs.) Being one at a very popular restaurant is. When a restaurant gets madly hectic and filled to capacity, an inexperienced FDP with the best of intentions can get very flustered.

The first couple of months I worked as an FDP were hell for me. On one memorable evening, with the line of waiting customers spilling out onto the street, the seats emptying awfully slowly, and the phone ringing off the hook with reservations and takeout orders, I got so flustered that I started hyperventilating and had hide out in the cloak room to recover. I did get more used to it as time went on, but every night was like a stage performance with logistical problems. I used to pray for a quiet evening, which rarely happened.

Restaurant seating getting backed up is usually not the FDP's fault, unless they were responsible for overbooking - and a good restaurant will not overbook as a matter of course. Sometimes the kitchen is slow for some reason - if some staff are out sick, for example. A couple of larger tables lingering over their meal can really mess up the most carefully laid plans too.

Frank Bruni suggests that the FDP could have handled the situation better. That's probably true - not explaining the situation, and not apologizing, are no-nos. However, unless the FDP is also the manager, he or she may not have the authority to do much about appeasing waiting customers with free drinks and things like that, so it's not that reasonable to expect such treatment. My guess is that the FDP Mr. Bruni encountered had simply lost his nerve and was in retreat mode. It happens.

Here are some things to do as a restaurant customer to avoid problems as much as possible.

  • It's understandable to feel peeved if you made a reservation and you have to wait. But yelling at the FDP or threatening them will get you nowhere. If the FDP has any balls, it will likely get you pushed back in priority. We even blacklisted a few very aggressive customers, and refused to take their reservations. One of them actually leaned over the desk, grabbed the shirt of one of my colleagues and started yelling into his face. Not good.
  • Greasing the palm of the FDP also won't really get you anywhere if the restaurant is really truly full. Tables and seats do not magically appear. (There are exceptions to this of course - some restaurants with expansive real estate and a policy of favoritism will reserve some tables for "special people". But I'm not sure I would want to go to such a place myself.)
  • Be aware of what kind of restaurant it is. How many seatings does it do per night? A typical full-course type place in the U.S. does 2 seatings per night, while a more elaborate place will follow European custom and only do one seating. On the other hand a more casual place will do 3 seatings a night, and 2 seatings for lunch. If you go to such a place and linger over your coffee for a full hour after you've finished your meal, you are making life hard for the restaurant staff in general, the FDP in particular, and your fellow diners. Now you might argue that you pay your money so you're entitled to linger as much as you want. But really, don't be such a dweeb. If you really want to linger, go to one of the 1-seating places, or Starbuck's. (Note, most formal-dining restaurants in Europe do much fewer seatings - just one for lunch, one for dinner is typical. Casual places do more seatings though.)
  • Don't call a popular restaurant for reservations during the busiest lunch/dinner hours. Only the most expensive restaurants have the luxury of maintaining separate reservation taking staff, and the FDP may be taking the call with about a dozen people breathing heavily in front of him/her. Chances for screwups are high. Good times to call are after 10 am until noon in the mornings, and after 3pm until about 6pm in the evenings.
  • If you make reservations some time in advance, call to re-confirm! Some restaurants are now requiring that you confirm, but it's always good policy to do this.
  • Always call to cancel a reservation you can't use. Please.
  • If you're going to be more than 10 minutes late, call to see if they will hold your reservation. Don't show up late without calling and act pissed if they have given your table away.
  • If you go to a restaurant for the last seating, or you pop in just before the kitchen closes, and you order the full tasting menu or such, your karma will get very, very bad. (The kitchen staff will heap hate on the FDP who allowed you in, and the FDP in turn will make a voodoo doll of you and stick forks in it.) The later you get there, the simpler your choices should be. It's better to eat light late at night anyway.

Basically, a restaurant loves to keep good customers. Be a good customer and you are guaranteed to have a great time. And be kind to your poor FDP.

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