Restaurants Have a Perfectly Good Reason Why They Can't Seat Your Incomplete Party

Like many New Yorkers, I am chronically 10 minutes late. I try to leave my apartment with time to spare but whether it be train delays, a broken shoe, or simply poor time management, I always wind up fashionably unpunctual. As a former host at a busy restaurant in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, I am all too aware of the domino effect that people's lateness for reservations can cause. That’s why I make sure to call, text, DM, or scream from the rooftops if I get even an inkling that I’m going to run over the 10 minute mark. I make sure to notify my friends, too. Usually, miraculously, they are on the same timeline as me or even further behind schedule. But occasionally, they show up on time or even (gasp!) early. 

What to Do When You're Running Late for a Restaurant Reservation
A couple weeks back, my friend checked in five minutes early and I was set to arrive five minutes late. Once I stumbled through the door, sweaty from speed walking, my friend was fuming. “They wouldn’t seat me,” she said. “That’s my number one pet peeve.”

We had both worked in restaurants, so I was pretty shocked to learn that we had such drastically different opinions on something that was so fundamental to my hosting job. We spent the next three minutes arguing about whether or not it’s right for a restaurant to refuse to seat an incomplete party — before we were distracted by shots of soju and popcorn chicken. 

As a host, I trusted no one.

But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I asked the following questions in the form of an Instagram story:

Let’s say you make a reservation at a restaurant. Your table is ready, you’re there, but the majority of your party is running late. Do you expect to get seated?
If they don’t seat you, are you kinda annoyed?
If you are annoyed, are you annoyed even though you understand the policy or annoyed because you think the policy is dumb?
I’m no influencer, but I did receive over 100 responses — enough to prove that neither my friend nor I are alone in our opinions. The majority of respondents (67%) expected to get seated whether or not the rest of their party has arrived. Whether or not people get annoyed is more split (55% for yes and 45% for no). For those who do get annoyed, most (60%) understood why they weren’t getting seated.

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My DMs are where I really got a sense of how polarizing this topic is. The messages ranged from “It’s their restaurant, their rule,” to “If the table is sitting empty, I think it’s petty if they don’t sit me.” Many people brought up the gray areas, noting, “It really depends how big the party is,” or, “It depends on the waiting area. If it’s crowded and I’m in the way it’s uncomfy.” 

All of these points are valid; I hear you and I see you. But from my experience working in a restaurant with a strict “we don’t seat until the majority of your party has arrived” policy, I can definitively explain why seating an incomplete party, in most cases, is a major liability.

Once you’re seated, you can’t be moved
To understand why you can’t be seated until the majority of your party arrives, you must first understand this: Once a host sits a guest down at a table, it is extremely difficult, uncomfortable, and often prohibited to ask them to leave or change tables. It’s a commitment. Nobody wants to hang up their coat and settle into their chair, only to find out that, due to a sudden change in table assignments, that a guest must move. When the guest sits down, that decision is final. There’s no turning back. That’s why a host wants to have all the details, like party size and possible table preferences, before they seat.

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Party size can’t be determined until everyone has arrived
There are people who are late (like me), and then there are people who bail at the last minute. It happens. But often, especially in large parties, guests will not be able to make it. Here’s a common scenario: There’s a party of eight in the books and there’s only one table in the entire restaurant that can accommodate a party of eight. There’s also a party of eight on the waitlist, and everyone has arrived and is waiting outside. Two people from the reservation show up and the host seats them at the eight-top. Come to find out, two out of the eight people decided not to show up. That party could have been moved to a six-top, leaving room for the party of eight that’s been patiently waiting to snag that extra-large table. Hosting is a game of strategy. It’s an enormous puzzle, but when a small party is taking up a large table, it feels like there is a missing piece.

People lie
As a host, I trusted no one. “I’ll be there in two” means “I’ll be there in 10.” “I’m running 15 minutes behind” means “I haven’t left my apartment.” Many people don’t want to admit how late they are and that’s their own problem, but it shouldn’t be the host’s. A host’s worst nightmare is seating just one person after they say, “Oh, my friend is down the block.” 45 minutes later, the friend has yet to arrive. At that point, little to nothing has been ordered, and the one person is holding a table that could have been used for the waitlist or later reservations. They then have to face the terrifying decision of letting them continue to sit and hold the table, or asking that guest to get up and wait at the bar, humiliating a person who is probably already stressed and very frustrated with their plus-one. A host never really knows when people are going to arrive until they actually arrive.

Your Server Knows When You’re Lying
The longer the table is sitting, the less money a restaurant will make
Turn times — the speed at which a restaurant can serve a table, then vacate it for the next party — are super important to a restaurant. They help determine how many people can dine that night, and therefore, how much money they will make. Sure, some parties will linger at a table for hours, ordering bottle after bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Dom Pérignon, eventually paying way more than the average group. But usually, that’s not the case. The longer a table is waiting for the rest of their party, the longer they are waiting to order, the longer it will be until they eat and pay for their meal, the longer the next group can sit at that table to eat and pay for their meal. 

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Ordering apps and a drink doesn’t really help
A recurring theme in my Instagram DMs were people arguing that, if they get seated, they will order a drink and/or appetizers while they wait for the rest of their party — that it’s not like they’d be holding the table for nothing. The thing is, unless the party is in a rush (maybe they have to be out in an hour to catch a movie), they are unlikely to order food until everyone in the group has arrived. 

When I posed that question to my Instagram followers, only 10% said that they would order appetizers while waiting. 68% did say that they’d order a drink, but in my experience, they typically won’t finish the drink before the rest of their party arrives. Usually they’ll slowly sip, waiting for their friends to catch up so they can order their second round together. It’s a much safer bet for hosts to encourage the guest to order a drink at the bar or, if the restaurant is slammed and there isn’t a spacious waiting area, grab a drink at the spot next door and return with the whole group. 

Just don’t be late
For many, the restaurant shouldn’t be to blame — the late friend should. “I’ll go to the bar and then text my annoying people to hurry up,” said one of my followers. “You’re late! Be on time!” said another. Fair enough. I’ll try my best to work on not being forever 10 minutes late — and you should too. 

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