A recent incident made me think about the logistics of accommodating a Saturday night crush of eager diners at a popular restaurant that has more fans than tables.
The time, the place, the food and the occasion were all just right: a friend's birthday dinner with six people at City House.
When the starter of roast pork heart on roasted root vegetables with marsala-soaked raisins arrived, I slapped my forehead and whispered "OMG that is so. incredibly. good." It's the best thing I've eaten so far this year, and probably also most of last year. It was going to be a good, good night to be a restaurant writer.
Ordering took a while, we had zillions of questions, each of which sent our dutiful server in search of an answer. (He also seemed to be serving another table in an upstairs dining room.)
We relaxed and had plenty of time for conversation as the the crispy octopus, house-made sausages, brisket, pizza, roast chicken and gemelli with sardine conserve made their way to the table to be swooned over, shared (except for birthday girl's pizza, which she kept avidly to herself) and devoured.
Just as molasses ice cream and cookies had been served, we were politely but decisively told that a party was waiting for our table, and we were invited to finish dessert in the bar.
What to do? We'd moved our reservations from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. to accomodate a babysitter. We'd been asked to arrive on time and we did. We didn't have control of the service pace. The birthday girl's gallant husband had been advised that two hours would be more than enough time for our dinner, but he was quietly freaking out when our entrees failed to arrive until more than two hours after we were seated.
The hostess pressed us again about moving to the bar, accusing our party of failing to abide by the conditions of our reservation. But when birthday girl shrugged and said, "Well, I guess we don't have any choice," the hostess retreated, never to be seen again.
We consumed our desserts as quickly as possible, with the tension of the encounter pretty much killing the taste of the sweets and the earlier delight of the evening.
Chef-owner Tandy Wilson confirmed that typically the City House tables turn in two hours, so reservations are made at two-hour intervals. Walk-ins are told at the hour-and-a-half mark that they can finish at the bar, while those with reservations get pretty much the whole two hours. When the party runs long, Wilson said, "You've got to do what you can do to juggle. The hosts go through a firefight on Friday and Saturday nights."
As diners (some of us from restaurant families), we're sympathetic, but it would have been much less of a shock if we'd been asked before we ordered dessert whether we minded moving. Having a luscious treat placed in front of you, then being asked to put down your spoon and carry the bowl elsewhere, was an abrupt letdown.
It's an issue that many smaller restaurants struggle with. At Firefly Grill, the petite eatery in Green Hills, there's a similar policy: If guests don't have a reservation, they're gently reminded as the next party's reservation draws near. If diners do have a reservation and don't seem near finishing, the host looks at the floor plan and tries to plan another seat for the arriving party.
At the intimate Caffe Nonna, owner Dan Maggipinto says that over the 11 years he's been in business, he's changed his tactic with dining parties running long. "I used to try to explain that we need the table, and people took it like we were trying to throw them out."
Now, he says, if the group is sitting and talking, "I go out and talk to them, ask if they need anything else, and start taking away glasses and plates. Eighty percent of them get the message." Another tactic is to escort a member of the waiting party to the table to see whether it, or another nearby table, will be big enough. That sends the message, too.
In the end, turning over the tables is another of the tough spots a restaurant can find itself in, and everyone, on both sides of the kitchen door, has a story.