Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Closing time: How close is too close?

Apr 6, 2011 at 5:00 am

It’s late, and you’re hungry. Maybe you’ve been to a movie or show, or maybe you’re just feeling deliciously lazy. You’re not in the mood for fast food, so you come up with a short list of restaurants you and your companions agree on, and everyone whips out a smartphone to research hours of business. Two or three of the places appear to be open still, but it’s only half an hour before closing time. What’s the appropriate course of action?

If you’ve ever worked in fine dining, you know the dance of winding down a dinner service. The “rush” — that part of the evening where the place is packed and the tickets come flooding across the rail at a steady clip — has been over for a while, and for the last couple of hours, the dining room has been gradually emptying. Groups at a couple tables are still enjoying dessert or coffee, but the majority of the night’s work is done.

If you’re a cook, you start dreaming of shift’s end and begin the process of cleaning, restocking and shutting down your station. One or two of the other cooks may have already been sent home when things slowed down an hour ago. If you’re a server, you start rolling silverware or polishing tomorrow’s water goblets, always keeping an eye on the last tables to make sure you react quickly if they need anything else — especially the check.

If you’re the owner, you’re torn between telling all but a skeleton crew to clock out, and wishing a large party (fresh from winning a lot of money at the track) would walk through the door. It’s a balancing act. You’re here to make money, and so is your staff. Savvy owners know they have to be prepared to feed people right up until the very moment they close; but if business is slow, you’ll want to get everyone off the clock as soon as possible after the doors are locked.

If you’re in the theoretical group of late-night diners, do this: Call the restaurant. Call them whether you’re five minutes away or you know you won’t be able to get there until a few minutes before closing an hour from now. It’s true you probably don’t need a reservation to secure a table, but it’s simply courteous to let them know in advance if your party is likely to spill over into the time after service.

Yes, technically, as long as you get there before the door’s locked, they should seat you, but giving them a heads up accomplishes several things. First, the kitchen will know not to completely shut down their stations or turn off the grill. Second, the owner or manager will know how many employees she needs to keep in house to provide you with proper service. Third, the staff’s brief disappointment that they won’t be getting off early will have come and gone before you arrive. Restaurant staffs know this is going to happen from time to time, and if they’re true professionals, they’ll be ready to provide snappy service, just as if you’d arrived at 5:30 instead of 11:30.

Enjoy your meal, and tip big if you’ve stayed more than a half an hour after the doors close. In those circumstances, you might even consider steering a tip toward the kitchen. And if you change your mind and decide not to come, don’t be embarrassed to call again — it’ll be greatly appreciated.

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 at Gardiner Point, the university’s new residence hall.