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November 3, 2010

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Waiting to inhale

“Why are Louisvillians so utterly opposed to waiting for a table?”

A manager at an ultra-hot Louisville eatery recently posed this question on our local foodie forum, LouisvilleHotBytes.com. I love it when a column topic plops directly into my lap.

The comments that followed were, well, illuminating to say the least. They ranged across a vast spectrum, from “I love a wait. We want a wait. I don’t like to walk into a restaurant and be seated right away. We have even let them skip us so we can wait a while,” to “I would rather have someone spank my ass with a butter knife than to wait for a table. I absolutely will not go anywhere that I have to wait to be seated.” (The names of those quoted have been withheld to protect the innocent — and the guilty.)

There are two disparate sides of the waiting dilemma. It should matter greatly whether you’re waiting because you just showed up during a peak time without a reservation, or because you made a reservation in good faith but they don’t have your table available.

“I find waiting to be stressful. It’s especially stressful to me if I’ve made a reservation and then I’m asked to wait. If there’s a nice bar, I might consider having a cocktail, but high tops or standing around doesn’t do it for me.” Another commenter agreed, bemoaning restaurants that have crowded or inadequate waiting areas. “Honestly, I think the waiting area should be something other than the bar or something else along with the bar,” he said. For instance, if your party includes children, it can be awkward to wait in a bar. Take note, owners and managers.

One restaurateur recounted an episode on a busy Saturday night. “Two couples walk in. I asked if they had a reservation — no. OK, no problem. Give me a minute to clean a table, I say. I find the table for them and get a server to clean it and set it up. I turn around and they are out the door. I have their menus in my hand. I walk out and say, ‘Your table is ready,’ at which point one of the gentlemen says, ‘You can take your table and shove it up your ass!’ One of my food vendors was there and saw the scene. I asked him how long they waited, and he said about seven minutes.”

That incident could be partially explained by another post: “Some people get mean when they get hungry.” Well, 3-year-olds often do. Still, studies have shown that there’s a great disparity between perceived waiting time and actual waiting time, even for adults. I have often heard even my own dining companions say, “We’ve been here for 20 minutes!” when, in reality, the time was half that.

In the end, you have two options. You can wait graciously to a point, but if the wait becomes genuinely unacceptable, you have many other options. But remember: Be kind to the staff. In all but the most poorly managed places, they are eager to fit you in. Chances are good that they are even more distressed than you are about your wait. Ultimately, it’s to the restaurant’s advantage to seat people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Finally, we have enough great independent dining institutions in the region that even the “spank-me-with-a-butter-knife” guy never has to wait, so if you can’t bear to cool your heels, as one commenter said: “Keep Louisville (Metro) Weird — don’t wait for a table. Spread the love to other deserving places that have them waiting for you!”

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of the Gardiner Point residence hall.