Here’s a question that came up tonight, and I’d like your opinion: How late is too late to go into a sit-down restaurant, of either “fancy” or”chain” variety?
Because of my work schedule and preferences, I rarely eat at fancy restaurants, but when I have gone, reservations have usually been secured. However, at least once, myself and a couple of people have dropped in on what appeared to be a slow night at a non-chain outlet and were able to be seated about 45 minutes prior to closing. At the chain restaurants I usually frequent, I won’t go in later than 30 minutes to close. Even then, I’ve never been the last person to leave. Is 30-45 minutes prior to close a good estimate, or am I pushing my luck here? I don’t want to keep someone late just for me or us, so myself and whomever I am with eat quickly, but is that still “too late?” I know some people that think if the door is unlocked (9:59PM?), they’re entitled to a table, and that doesn’t jive with me. We’d come earlier, but it’s usually not feasible, and man, fast food sure does get old when you don’t feel like cooking…
There’s a great scene in the movie Waiting where the cooks at a chain restaurant anxiously watch the kitchen clock as it counts down the final seconds before closing time. Milliseconds before the magic hour, an oblivious entitled couple walks in and asks for a table. Following corporate policy, the hostess seats the customers in the empty restaurant. Then the poor hostess, terrified beyond words, informs the cooks they can’t go home yet. The kitchen staff goes berserk and starts breaking shit like a pack of rabid crack fueled anger monkeys. I’m surprised they let the hostess live.
Wes, coming into a restaurant 30-45 minutes before closing is totally cool. It’s the fifteen minutes to three seconds before closing tables that drive me batshit. Don’t get me wrong, waiters understand that customers often can’t get away from their soul sucking/youth thieving/relationship destroying corporate jobs until late in the evening. We understand that some people can only pencil in quality time with their significant others after eleven o’clock. To make life easier for late night diners I’ve compiled a handy list of do’s and don’ts.
1. If the restaurant closes at 11:00 and you must eat at 10:50 make a reservation. Don’t just “show up.” Waiters don’t like tardy diners, but if they have advance warning they can decide which staff stays or goes and mentally prepare for sticking around. If you just “walk in” you run the risk of getting a waiter who was psyched to go home and now resents that you’re cutting into his or her alcohol/sexual congress time. The service will be shit.
2. Skip the appetizers. Why? Because the chef wants to go home too! After he cooks up your entrée he’s changing out of his kitchen checks and walking out the door. As you’re chit chatting over salads your entrées will be languishing under the heat lamp while the dishwasher’s spraying industrial strength carcinogenic cleaning solvents in their immediate vicinity. Here’s a hint. If you see the cook walk out the door ask the waiter for your entrée NOW!
3. Don’t expect a leisurely meal. Even if the kitchen’s been glacially slow all night, the food for the last table of the evening always gets cooked in record time. (MICROWAVE)
4. Get a room. For some reason late dinners tend to be exhibitionists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen drunken couples swept up in the mini dramas of their lives present their libidos for public consumption. I’m not a prude by any means, but clumsy late night under the table handjobs are not cool. Kissing is OK but sloppy intoxicated half hour face suck sessions are not. And don’t disappear into the bathroom for a quickie either. Someone has to clean up after you. (Remember, many waiters have cell phones with cameras. If you want to be unwitting talent for an online porn site – be my guest.)
5. Don’t order dessert. Be respectful that you’re keeping the staff late. Why risk getting regular instead of decaf and staying up all night? GET OUT.
6. If the weather’s bad, don’t come in late to eat. Remember, we’ve got to go home in that mess too. Many restaurant workers take the bus home or use a taxi. Whenever there’s inclement weather both these modes of transportation can become scare. Will you give them a ride home?
7. Economics. Many hippy dippy people are all about sticking it to corporations and only patronizing local mom and pop business. Cool. Prove it by never coming into an independently operated restaurant fifteen minutes before closing. Why? Because a restaurant loses money hand over fist when they’re paying salaries and utility costs to serve two customers in an empty restaurant. You want that quaint corner bistro to be open a year from now? Don’t be an entitled late night prick. Live your values. Don’t just wear them on a t-shirt.
8. Don’t order late night takeout as a substitute for eating in! Besides the fact that to-go orders from white tablecloth establishments never weather the commute from restaurant kitchen to customer living room very well, you also run the risk of consuming a forensic toxicologist’s version of a wet dream.
9. Do not come into a restaurant just before closing and ask if you can “just have dessert” or a “glass of wine.” We’re not staying late for your cheap ass.
10. If you do eat out late, do not bring your overstressed, maxed out, emotionally labile children into a restaurant way past their bedtime!
11. Customers who arrive fifteen before closing time without a reservation are almost always assholes. Experience has taught me that when people are inconsiderate with a server’s time they’ll treat the server like shit as well. Late night dinners are invariably bad tippers. Why get labeled?
12. If you make a habit of eating out late – tip large. It’ll take the edge off the server’s pain. Yes, we can be bought. At the Bistro I had a few good tipping customers that I’d seat late despite threats of dismemberment from the kitchen staff. (Yes, I’m fully aware of my hypocrisy.)
13. Customers who arrive after closing time and insist on being served, often saying “I know the owner,” are going to have the flesh perpetually ripped from their bodies by grotesque serpents in deepest, hottest bowels of hell. You’ve been warned.
14. If the staff’s tired and the manager decides to lock up an empty restaurant ten minutes early, don’t get all legalistic and shout “But the sign says!” Deal with it like a mature adult. Don’t stand outside the door and angrily point at your watch either. Those serpents in hell have sharp teeth.
15. If you get turned away at the door, don’t call or email the owner the next day and rat out the staff. You’ll never be able to trust the food at the place again.
16. You can always go to a diner.
I know what some of you reading this list are thinking. “Hey, staying late’s part of the job. If you don’t like the hours, find another line of work!” That may be true, but if your work schedule only lets you eat out late at night, maybe you’re the one who should consider a career change. You only get to ride this ride once. Enjoy it.