November 26, 2013

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

The hardest part

Waiting for a table: How long is too long?

A recent spirited discussion on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum prompted me to think deeply about how long it’s appropriate to wait for a table in Louisville, and what circumstances might change the answer to that question.

The short answer for most people is: It’s complicated. There is a built-in butterfly effect that may consist of traffic patterns, what time of which day of the week it is, how hungry you are, and the current hipness level of the spot where you’re trying to dine.

I’ve either been very smart or very lucky over the years. I can’t recall a single “seating horror story” at a Louisville restaurant that wasn’t caused by my own poor planning. Regular readers of this column already know that I’m a huge advocate for making a reservation with any restaurant that accepts them. I don’t care if I’m planning an Oaks night celebration six months in advance, or calling a place on my cell phone to say we’ll be there in 15 minutes, I am going to try to get on the books. A reservation simply tips off everyone in the building, from the hostess to the line cooks, to be ready for your party.

But, wait! What’s this about restaurants that don’t take reservations? Most of these fall into either of two varieties: those that accept walk-ins only, and those that juggle a combo of walk-ins and call-ahead seating.

Even though I’ve never been a host or server, I still thought I knew what call-ahead seating entailed. If a restaurant takes call-ahead seating, I figured I could call the restaurant and say we’re on the way, and they would put our party on the waiting list at that point. That would place our name several parties ahead on the list when we arrive. Then, we’d let the host know we were there and wait until our name floated to the top of the seating list.

Other interested parties had a totally different idea of the rules of call-ahead waiting: One person in the discussion said with confidence that if you call ahead, that means when you arrive at the restaurant, you are seated next, no matter what else is going on. That can’t be right. There will be walk-ins who have been waiting since their arrival, plus other call-aheads. There’s no way to make it work if whoever arrives gets seated next — there would be riots. So obviously a disconnect exists out there, and if diners aren’t sure what exactly a restaurant means by “call-ahead seating,” well, they should ask the host when they call ahead.

Now, as for small, trendy spots that don’t take any sort of reservation or call-ahead: I imagine life working there is truly exciting. If the place is topped out on the hipness scale or has a recent magazine mention or restaurant review, they can definitely make it on this seating model for a few weeks or months, but it’s like walking a tightrope. You have to learn to surf the vagaries of popularity, weather and media mentions. You have to be creative. You have to be charming in the face of patrons looking over your shoulder at two empty deuces when you tell them they can’t be seated just yet.

(One person in the wait-time conversation suggested that if a restaurant is not properly staffed or if their larger parties haven’t arrived yet, management should see to it that empty tables are taken away and stored out of sight of the waiting diners. I laughed so hard that pumpkin-spice tears ran down my cheeks.)

Finally, it’s painfully obvious (when you poll hosts and managers) what the main problem is with restaurant seating in Louisville: Almost everyone wants to eat between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.! Could we, possibly, be a little more adventurous? That new hot spot you want to try out is probably open until 10 p.m., at least. Could you try eating at 8:30? And you could go to brunch a little earlier than 1:30 on the weekends. Do your research. Have a lively chat with the person who answers the phone at the restaurant. Ask their advice. Have a late lunch or a really early dinner.

It’s the free market, everybody! This may force earlier and later dining-time slots. Sweet. Go bananas. Meet me at 4 p.m. for dinner.

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.