The Daley Question

Waiting for a seating policy that makes sense

Customer questions restaurant policy on not seating guests in a half-empty restaurant

Restaurant seating

A busy restaurant can use many methods of making sure they're seating in a timely and fair manner. But what about when the restaurant's half empty? (Shown above: Maggiano's Oak Brook host stand on a busy night in this file photo) (Chicago Tribune file photo / December 8, 2000)

Q: This just feels wrong — what's your take? Should a restaurant with a completely empty community table outside (all of their outdoor seating) and half empty inside tell you there is a 25-30 minute wait (first time) and 10-15 minute wait (second time) but offer for you to wait at the bar? When asked why we were waiting given all the empty seats, they said their kitchen is too small to actually serve in a timely manner if they seated everyone in the empty seats. We said, 'Why not at least seat us and serve us a drink?' They said their bar was too small to get drinks out while we were seated (but, it wasn't too small for us to go stand at the bar while waiting...). We told the hostess that seemed crazy, and she said that was just the way the owner and the chef wanted to do it. Your thoughts? We like the food very much but won't go back.

—Chris Cassidy, Chicago

A: My thoughts? It does indeed feel wrong. I took the liberty of forwarding your email to my colleague, Phil Vettel, the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic, to get his viewpoint. His response is below:

"Some very good restaurants maintain their high standards of cooking and service by steadfastly sticking to a set number of guests they can serve properly," Vettel wrote in an email. "In some ways, this is admirable; restaurants such as Goosefoot (which never allows its dining room to be completely full at any one time) and bars such as The Violet Hour (which does not permit standup customers, but only admits as many patrons as the bar has seats) are foregoing significant chunks of potential revenue to maintain their standards of service.

"At other restaurants, you might show up at 6:45 to a restaurant that is holding 20 reservations for 7 p.m., and thus has committed all those 'empty' tables you see. Honoring reservations is also admirable.

"In your situation, the host seems to be hinting at the second explanation, though with preposterous logic (The bar is too small to send drinks out to your table? What does the restaurant intend to do when it fills up?), but the bottom line is this: Many restaurants in town are eager for your money; this operation, quite clearly, is not. I would depart with a pointed, 'Well, perhaps we'll return when you're not so busy,' and seek a friendlier dining room."

Phil's right. The only thing I might add to his advice is for to write a letter to the restaurant. Start with your last line in your email: "We like the food very much but won't go back." Then, briefly and politely, tell them why. I doubt your letter will make much of difference but, then again, one never knows. At the very least, you will be able to gain some satisfaction in expressing your displeasure.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.

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