Turning the Tables

Dear Helena,
The other night I went to my favorite restaurant, and as usual, it was packed. I was eating with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and we took our time over dinner. After we paid the check, we continued chatting. Then the hostess came up to us and said, “I hate to kick you out, but we really need this table.” The experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I waited weeks for my reservation. I didn’t see why I should scramble to get out of there. Is it OK for the restaurant to tell you to move on, and if so, what’s the best way for them to do it?
—I Need Time to Digest

Dear Time to Digest,
In industry lingo, people who stay for a long time are called "campers," and restaurants don’t like them. But neither do restaurants like asking campers to decamp.

Anne Stoll, co-owner of Delfina, a top San Francisco restaurant, says she would only ask campers to move if the place is crammed, other people are waiting for their reservations, and more than 30 minutes has elapsed since the campers paid their check. “Then I would offer them a drink in the bar, if there’s a place for them.” Restaurant workers I talked to agreed that that’s the only classy way to ask people to move on. It makes business sense: The profits from turning the table outweigh the loss on the free drinks.

As long as you’re still consuming food and drink, you can linger as long as you want. You’re there for the overall experience, not just what you put in your mouth, and dining at a comfortable pace is part of what makes a good experience. A chef who wished to remain anonymous told me, “Think of it this way: Especially in busy cities, a restaurant table is valuable real estate. You rent it by buying food and drink. As long as you’re still eating and drinking, you’re paying your rent.” But there is a limit. Like, it’s not OK to order endless coffee refills just to have a place to hang out.

You may not care what happens to the restaurant’s reservation system or potential profits, but know that if you dawdle, you’re causing a special kind of torment for the hungry people in line. David Maister, a business consultant and former Harvard Business School professor, explains: “Waiting for an uncertain period is subjectively worse than waiting for a fixed period.” That is, if you’re eating dessert, people think you’ll leave when you’re done. But if you’ve paid the check and you’re still hanging out, there’s no telling when you’ll go. For the person in line, it’s easier to wait 20 minutes while you eat dessert than wait even a short time after you’ve paid the check. In the latter case, the passing minutes seem interminable.

Ryan Belanger, bartender at the now-defunct Duce bar and restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, says: “If I’m at a restaurant, I go through the meal in a timely fashion, I enjoy my dessert or drink or last glass of wine. Then if I see people waiting for tables, I’m out of there. If I want to hang out, I’d go to the bar or lounge.”

So by all means, once you’ve paid the check, stand up and leave already. If you don’t, you’re not camping. You’re squatting.

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