Chew on This: Seating, or Not Seating, Incomplete Parties

I understand why some restaurants are reluctant to seat incomplete parties. Sometimes the rest of the party doesn’t show up and the restaurant is left with a deuce at a four-top during the dinner rush. Lost revenue on valuable real estate. Allowing two people to sit while they wait for another couple can also throw the pace of service off: two separate drink orders and/or two different water pours. If a restaurant is busy, they have to remain firm on this policy. I get it.

However, a few weeks ago my mother and I showed up at a small restaurant for a 5:30PM reservation. We were on time, but our other two friends had called to say they would be 15 minutes late. I told the hostess our situation. She told us she would seat us when our party was complete. The restaurant was empty. Oh, sorry, there was one two-top in the back. The hostess handed us menus and walked away. A few minutes later, I broke up a conversation between said hostess and a server and asked if we could order a glass of wine. She brought us the wine. We stood for 18 minutes with a menu in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. No other diners entered the restaurant. When our tardy party arrived, we were escorted four steps to our table.

Restaurateurs, tell us why this is right or wrong.

Dishers, tell me some  similar stories.


  • Darren

    Whenever I show up to a restaurant, my party is always complete and seated immediately.

    Ahh, the joys of being single and alone. 🙁

  • Sparky

    You know the answer to this, and any other problem customers in any area run into when confronted with a “sorry, that’s our policy” type of response — the people who interact with the customers don’t have the brainpower to selectively apply a flexible policy to a variety of situations (i.e., “don’t seat incomplete parties UNLESS it’s slow”), so you get one over-arching, unyielding directive carried out by programmed drones.

  • Kelly

    I agree! It is ridiculous when the restaurant is not full. I recently met a friend at St. Ann’s at 7 pm on a Wednesday and the dining room was half full and the bar very crowded. I had to stand at the bar alone for 10 minutes when they could have just as easily served me a glass of wine at the table. Instead the server wanted to know if I had closed my tab at the bar, I had, she could have made the sale on that drink. And I was a waitress and bartender for 10+ years and think it is a silly rule if the establishment os not full.

  • Christopher

    I’ve been offered 15-20 minute wait times at both The Screen Door and The Commissary when literally there are only 2-3 other couples dining…and actually made to wait those times. It is odd to feel like an inconvenience, when there are 5-10 empty tables within 20 feet of you, neatly wrapped silverware and all, totally un-utilized. I don’t understand not waitresses flipping out in those situations because in the 15 minutes I’m waiting, I could be a third of my way through my meal. More tables = more money. I don’t get it.

  • Borborygmus

    In the old days there would have been a maitre’d but today there are few full service restaurants that fill that position.

    As you mentioned, the restaurant was almost empty, maitre’d’s are best used (and most affordable) when restaurants are doing 4-5 turns per night. Otherwise, in general the position has been replaced with “seaters” who are fed a standard rule to follow, work for their 3.5 hour shift and go home.

    Part of the maitre’d position has been replaced with electronics (OpenTable) and by the general trend of a “no reservation” policy in restaurants.

  • George

    Particularly in a small restaurant, when and where a party is seated is a big deal, even if the restaurant is currently empty. Imagine a restaurant with very few tables, you have a 5:30 reservation for four. It is quite possible that at 7:30 a party of eight will be arriving and your table will be joined with the next to accommodate that party. The hostess may be hesitant to seat you at the table you reserved, not knowing when the rest of your party would arrive. The hostess was likely trying to ensure that those holding later reservations would not be inconvenienced by your friends tardiness.

  • Gipson

    This isn’t quite the same, but it’s the one I always think of when telling “‘Cause that’s the policy!” stories.

    Ten years ago my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I went to the Melting Pot in Addison. Weeknight, fairly early in the evening. Host asked us about our reservations. “Uh, we don’t have any.” He said he had to ask the manager if they could “fit you in tonight.” (I remember the words)

    As he went to ask, we couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant was EMPTY. That’s not an exaggeration. We were literally the only customers at the moment. But okay, maybe it picks up at 7:00.

    Thankfully, they could “fit” us in and we enjoyed our meal. When it came time to leave around 7:30, we couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant was EMPTY. Still not an exaggeration. It made me wonder if the host actually asked the manager anything, or if he’d been trained to punish walk-ins with passive aggression.

    I know some restaurants have reservations-only policies, but be reasonable. If their aren’t any bookings, cut the walk-ins some slack. They are, after all, your only customers.

    (Didn’t help that my now-wife and I were only 17 at the time. It was like a fancy date for us, and we had no experience dining in upscale restaurants. We felt out of place and unwanted for sure.)

  • Gizzard

    I get a kick out of when I’m meeting just one friend, and they won’t seat me at a two top until the friend arrives. I’ve figured out to just let them think I’ll be dining alone, so that I can go ahead a be seated. Morons.

  • Jolene

    There are many reasons why this happens. From a person that has managed many restaurants in this town for the past 12 years, here a few reasons why:
    1. Many people make reservations at restaurants that only take large party reservations (say 6 or more) for 6 people knowing they are only having 4 guests total just so that they may make a reservation…rude and dishonest. This forces the restaurant to unfortunately want to see all guests in the building before you get seated at the amazing round table that seats 6 that you demanded when you made your “false” reservation.
    2. If you have a reservation for 6:00pm for 10 people and only 6 people are there at 6:00 and the rest of the party joins at 6:45 (happens all the time), you have just pushed the following reservation on your table back by at least an hour. Are you willing to explain to those guests that they now have to wait because your friends can’t be on time? No, you’ll just let them think that the restaurant overbooked and there are “morons” running the place.
    3. You make a reservation for 12 people and 30 mintues after your reservation you still only have 7 total guests and you were happily seated incomplete by the restaurant, you have now forced a table to wait because you are taking up unused space. Unused space equals no food or beverage sales.
    4. For those of you that see empty tables and so “kindly” point them out…we are holding those for reservations that are arriving within the next 30 minutes or perhaps we are waiting for parties to be complete because people have lost the skill of respect by showing up on time.
    5. Time is money. We aren’t trying to herd you like cattle, but please understand that there are bills to pay and expectations to meet.
    6. And finally, not all of Dallas can dine between the hours of 7:00 and 8:00. Can some of you please eat earlier or later? That is why when you walk into a restaurant at 6:30 and you see all these empty tables and we tell you there is a wait. Everyone will be dining with us from 7:00 to 8:00! Oh, and how dare they wait if they have a reservation!

  • Dubious Brother

    I would have changed my reservation time to 6:15 and told them I was going someplace close to have a drink and wait for my friends or I would have cancelled the reservation and gone someplace else for dinner. Cell phones make that easier.

  • Kirsten

    Restaurants need to remember what customer service is. Patrons need to be courteous to restaurants and other guests. Ultimately it’s the customer shelling out the money though, and no matter what….everyone say it together now… “the customer is always right!!!” Maybe above Jolene needs: 1. some good old fashioned “Customer Service 101”, 2. Get out of the service industry!!!!!!!

  • Jolene, I really appreciate your input. Very helpful information.

  • A. B.

    I like Gizzard’s approach.

  • bc

    I frequent a lunch spot that won’t seat incomplete parties. To the point that when the other person in my party is parking the car I just got out of, they still won’t mark us as complete until he/she walks through the door. Which seemed ridiculous the first two or three times I said “oh, they’re here, just parking the car.” But in the 100 times I’ve eaten there since, I’ve seen about 100 people say the same thing (or “they’re right behind me”) and not see their party arrive for 20 more minutes.

    I think the problem is often that the customer feels entitled to fudge the number slightly. I know that when most of my friends are running late (yes, I am always on time), they will tell me they’ll be there in 10 minutes. I realize that means 25 minutes at a minimum.

    So, if you have to wait 5 minutes to be seated, that’s not that big of a deal, right? And if you have to wait longer than that…. well, your friends are just as irresponsible as mine. And you (and I) should choose better dining mates and not punish the restaurant or other patrons for it.

  • Jane

    Recently sat a party of 16. This means we had to push four 4 tops together. 4 people showed up on time at 7pm. We are a friendly restaurant so we sat the 4. The next 4 showed up at 7:45pm. Um OKAY. It got busy. Crazy busy-with a wait. Meanwhile, the other 2 tables sat untouched. At 8:30, the other 8 showed up. It was inconsiderate and rude.

    I have no respect for people who complain about being a customer until you have WORKED IN A RESTAURANT.

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  • jtnc2452

    right on Jolene…

    it’s a business trying to maximize it’s potential and they do the best to take human error element. Albeit, some establishments may not be quite as efficient at it is others.

    The restaurant would love to live by “the cusotmer is always right” mantra. But not to the extent of the bottom line.

    I would rather upset that one table and try to make up for it then shake up my service staff and kitchen and have to make amends to a whole dining room.

  • Nanette

    I do not agree with the comment ” the customer is always right” Let us not forget that in todays society manners are for the most part a thing of the past and entitled do not step on my toes attitude rules. We see it everywhere. I do not work in a restuarant nor would I ever want to but I have friends who are managers and owners of some really nice places and some of the horror stories would leave me in the fetal position. Bottom line manners, consideration and respect need to be given on both sides.

  • logan

    I can see how Nancy’s situation would be slightly annoying but i still get amazed at people who aim their ire at a restaurant instead of the friends they have that can’t seem to be on time. And i know stuff happens so being late could be nearly unavoidable, but really, in most cases, people are late because they can’t manage their time. Get mad at them, not the restaurant.

  • Rose

    Right on, Nanette.
    I always make my reservations for 30 minutes later than when I tell my party we’re meeting. Then when someone inevitably runs late, we’re right on time for the restaurant.

  • IntheIndustry

    Jolene is 100% right.

    Late customers are a big reason restaurants cannot get your food out in time. Late customers often are the reason managers end up comping appetizers and drinks for the people who have reservations right afterwards. If the 7:00 party is late, then the party that arrives on time at 8:30 won’t be sat until 9pm. Who pays for that when the 8:30 party complains?

    People who are chronically late cause a huge chain reaction. They think nothing of the 30-55minutes that they make their friends wait, but it ends up making other customers that they have never met wait, too.