Excuse me, can I have your table back?

Ever been asked to move to a new table at a restaurant after being seated? Restaurant critic Michael Bauer debates the protocol of being asked to play musical chairs in the middle of your meal.

On his blog Between Meals, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer responds to a reader query about having been asked to move—to a much less desirable table—by a restaurant manager trying to seat a large (and apparently angry) group. Is such a request a faux pas on the part of the management? Should diners feel free to decline such a move? And should the restaurant offer to comp part of their meal or drinks, in return for displacing their customers?

The reader responses to the question are interesting and varied. Some feel it is fine to be asked, but fine to decline.

I have no problem being asked. I also have no problem declining if the relocation table is not acceptable. In any case, the server should have offered to comp a course or a couple glasses (maybe a bottle) in recognition of the inconvenience.

Others would go out of their way to be accommodating, even if it put them out a bit.

I would have moved to the other table. Personally, I think a good rule of thumb is that when someone asks you to help them out, whatever the situation, the answer is “yes,” unless there are overwhelming reasons why you cannot do so. Being accomodating in this way will occasionally make your own situation a bit worse. But if everyone adopted this attitude it would just as often work in your favor.

One, presumably industry insider, blames the management.

This story highlights one of the unknown facts in the restaurant world. Below the highest-end joints, floor managers are among the dumbest people around. Pay is low, prospects are dim, and hours are long, so it’s hard to get good people. Of course there are lots of exceptions, but many of these people lack the smarts and people skills to be servers, and lack the talent and ambition to be cooks, so they go where incompetents everywhere go, middle management, where they can give orders to their betters and generally muck things up.

While another insider—who’s been asked to walk that line before—commiserates with the awkwardness of it all.

I’ve had to do this a few times. It’s an extremely hard thing to have to go and ask the guest. The reasons why we’ve done it in the past was usually due to a host seating error when they sat a group at a wrong table and then the group that was to go there shows up and then the host realize they’re mistake. It’s only asked if it’s the only hope of seating the second group at a reasonable time. You also have to read the group and their type of dining situation. If it’s a casual diner then it’s easier. If it appears to be a romantic first time date or special occasion I would hesitate doing it. When it does happen, we approach it as if we’ve just asked the world of them and depending on their tab come close to comping most of it. Our goal is to ensure that they are happy that it happened to them.

Michael Bauer comes down on the side of the diner in this situation, though, noting that it is “unusual for a restaurant to ask a diner to move once seated.” If the deed must be done, Bauer recommends a bit more tact. “The manager was remiss in not being more gracious; he could have offered to comp the meal, a round of drinks or dessert.”

Yeah, some of us will do nearly anything for booze and sugar.