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Eating at an empty restaurant?

  • k

This is something that has crossed my mind a few times, so I figured I would bring it up with a group of people who (potentially) enjoy eating out. Do you mind/like/dislike eating at an empty restaurant?

Personally, I feel really uncomfortable eating anywhere your party makes up the entire dining population and I would even say I feel strange when only 10-15% of the tables are full. I'm not sure what it is, but I think I feel like I'm being watched. Also, there is a big of catholic guilt ingrained into me that makes me feel really bad for the owners and waitstaff when the place is so empty. I tend to sit there a worry about the waitstaff, chef, owner, etc. I'm definately not saying that I only like eating at crowded places, more that I just don't like being the only one dining at there.

Does anyone else feel this way and purposly avoid empty restaurants?

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  1. I also feel bad for the restaurant and staff when we're one of the only, or THE only table. I don't go out of my way to avoid them, I just worry they will be closed soon and am usually right. I usually try to tell other people I know who live around where the restaurant is, or post on CH about a place to try to "save" it from going under, but have never been successful.

    1. I'm uncomfortable, as is my husband, in an other-wise empty restaurant. You start wondering if there's a good reason it's empty and you're the ones who don't know about it - like they've gotten a bad inspection report from the health department or something. So we usually will go elsewhere.

      1. Hate it, two recent examples. Chowhound in orange county recommended a Thai restaurant, went at 8, only table was us, food good, cost minimal, service great, but it was creepy. Woman l am currently with likes to eat dinner at 4:30-5 in the afternoon, we always eat by ourselves, really sdo not like it. Could handle the earliness of eating, just do not like it alone.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

          Was it Siam, Taste of Thai? I LOVE this restaurant and wish more people patronized it! The food is out of this world and Siam is a gracious hostess who will make sure she pleases you and your palate.

          I'm often the only one in the restaurant when I go there. I want to stand out on First Street with one of those arrows.

          P.S. I don't find dining by myself in an empty restuarant creepy, though.

        2. hence the old saying "No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant". It's not only creepy but calls the quality of the insuing meal into question. Empty Thai place at 445pm. no biggie........same restaurant empty at 730pm? Im walking right by.......

          3 Replies
          1. re: nkeane

            I wouldn't necessarily walk right by. One of my favorite Thai restaurants is nearly always empty when ever my parents and I eat dinner there. The location is bad (the previous two restaurants at that location didn't last long) and the restaurant really only fills up when the weather is nice and they have outside seating. But their take out/delivery is always busy.

            Empty restaurants always look lonely and sad to me. Not the atmosphere that I want in a restaurant.

            1. re: viperlush

              my example was based on having never been to the restaurant before. Yes, if I KNOW its good, but empty, I look at it as a perfect chance to enjoy it sans the crowd.

              1. re: viperlush

                You hit on the point I was gonna make...many places may do a BIG take out/delivery business but very little in-house dining so they therefore always look empty. My fave Sushi place out here has a great dining room which is never ever full but when I have eaten there, there is a steady stream of ppl coming in for takeout

            2. Another concern is the freshness of the food if it appears there's not much traffic.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Veggo

                I have eaten twice at a restaurant where we were the only ones at noon.
                First time: Around 1PM four came in. No more came before we left around 1:30.
                On the second occasion, again at 1PM, people started coming in. Weird! This time it was a Friday and they just kept coming.
                I will probably not go back, because as Veggo mentioned, the food was only partially freshly prepared; and the warmed food was not that good.
                On the other hand: SO and I were in Spain. It was the early part of off-season. We stopped at a small but pretty seaside restaurant. Empty. We had a fabulous lunch! We were doted on by the waitress and had the quietest, most romantic lunch. I would post pics but they are hard to get to.
                I have no qualms about eating in an empty restaurant unless it seems odd. I do tend to see how many cars are out front....

                1. re: Scargod

                  In France, it is the rule of the routier. one truck, maybe, 2-3 trucks, probably, 4 or more, let's go.

              2. A restaurant being empty isn't necessarily a bad sign - they might be new, or it might be very early in the day and they've just opened so the lunch crowd aren't there yet, or it's the 'inbetween' time in the afternoon when not a lot of people want to eat out... But if all the other restaurants nearby are full and one is sitting there empty, you really have to ask yourself why!

                1. Did no one notice that there's a severe recession? Many once-crowded restaurants in my town are short of customers. The food is still great, but people don't have the money to spend that they once did. Why on earth should I hesitate to eat at a place, simply because so many tables are empty? My reaction is to do the opposite.

                  1. I wouldn't skip a restaurant just because it's empty, lots of good places have very irregular business, being very busy one day and quite slow the next for no obvious reason.
                    If the restaurant has bar seating, it's often more comfortable to eat at the bar than in an otherwise empty dining room.
                    Last night, I ate at an uncomfortably crowded restaurant, received rushed and hectic service, somewhat pricey wine I didn't care for and mediocre food. I wish I had tried an empty place instead!

                    1. I don't like it either. I hate the feeling of intruding or being in the way. I know it's ridiculous because they're open, but it's just uncomfortable for me. Restaurants tend to fall apart during the slow times. People aren't on their A-game because the pace is relaxed and things fall through the cracks. As a diner, it's a lot easier to notice slow service when the place is deserted. When you're the only person in the place, not a lot of excuse for an unfilled water glass.

                      1. love it when the place is not that full or we're the only ones. as long as the food was good of course. I find the service and food is usually slightly better. Granted I tend to favor hole in the wall ethnic places. But usually they're not as rushed, more attention paid to the food and more likely to notice that we're into the food and curious to learn more about the cuisine. I've learned a lot in those situations or be given a small free taste of something that's not normally served but was just for themselves.

                        Same reason we usually prefer to dine out during weekdays and non peak hours on weekends. much more attention to the food and service.

                        1. I had lunch yesterday at a place that is moderately busy in the winter. (In the summer it's too crowded and we tend to avoid it.) It was a bit emptier than usual, but food and service were fine. Tipped a bit more. No way that this place will go out of business though. It's a pretty solid kind of place.

                          1. We recently dined in an empty restaurant while we were in Scotland last week. We called one night and asked if we needed a reservation - they said no, but if we were coming, to let them know because otherwise they'd close. We decided not to go that night, but made a reservation for the next night.

                            We did have concerns about the restaurant being empty, and the quality of the food, however, it was located in a seasonal tourist town, and had been given a good recommendation online (and the recession was having an impact, of course). Most hotels in the area were doing bed, breakfast, and dinner specials, and not many people were straying from their home base in search of chow.

                            Verdict: Food was fabulous, and took awhile to prepare, which gave me the impression that it was being freshly prepared. Service was friendly and not overbearing or too lonely seeming. We certainly will visit again, and hope that the place survives the slow winter months!

                            1. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a restaurant in Stockholm (hotel concierge recommendation) and were the only ones there. It was a beautiful August evening, and they had just re-opened after their summer closure. Server explained that many people were still out of the city on holiday or because of the weather out enjoying other things.
                              Over the 3 1/2 hours we were there, we had a wonderful 10 course tasting menu with wine pairings, and got absolutely wonderful service and food (no worry about freshness, as it was all brought in that day). We did feel a bit guilty that we were keeping the staff there for so long, and that they were opening a number of bottles of wine for small pours. But we also figured that if they are open, they have to do their best regardless of how many people are there.

                              1. I hate to go all somber on this topic but, in these tough economic times, it might be a good idea to think about the impact that avoiding a (nearly)empty restaurant can have on the restaurant. The feeling that you don't want to eat there is not odd at all but it can be contagious and will likely add to the downward spiral of the place. If the food and service are good I would go out of my way to eat there and tell other people about it. It really can be a chicken and egg kindof thing.

                                1. Interesting question....

                                  In my experience, the fullest of restaurants are often the ones CH's tend to curl their noses at. When Olive Garden came to town back in '03, you NEEDED a reservation for perhaps a year afterwards - otherwise you might have to wait 2 or 3 hours! I'm sure there's still a wait there, as there often is at Red Lobster. Likewise, whenever I've peered into the window of our local mall Applebee's, I've never seen it hurting for diners.

                                  On the other hand, many of the restaurants in this region recommended by CH'ers, myself, or other foodie types (Yelpers, etc.) tend not to fill up so easily. Although I'm not quite impressed with it as I once was, our local Indian restaurant that I was once a major fan of has been nearly empty almost every time I've stopped by for take-out at dinner time. One of the restaurants most loved by MSP-area CH'ers - Aribel's (Guyanese) - was almost always empty according to reviewers on this site. (They closed as a result). An Indian restaurant I positively fell in love with in Fargo, Passage to India, had perhaps 20% occupancy when I stopped in there at around 6:30 back in November. Some good restaurants I tried in Manhattan - Djerdan, Ghenet, this Burmese place in the LES - weren't busy either. My limited experience (at primarily "ethnic" restaurants) finds no immediate correlation between how busy a restaurant is and how good it is. I think a lot of the time a restaurant's relative emptiness has more to do with how undiscovered it is or how unusual the cuisine is rather than some lack of quality.

                                  Edit: One advantage of "empty" restaurants - there's no rush to leave (or at least there shouldn't be).

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: tvdxer

                                    If that's not a scary thing I don't know what is? You just have to hope they can stay in business. It's true here too, where Claim Jumper, Cheesecake Factory and BJ's Brewery are jammed all the time and the local places not so much.

                                    Unfortunately the specific area where I live is far too 'non-ethnic' to have many REALLY great small places to eat (I will stand by that correlation). Personally I have a rather broad taste range, so I'm OK with the 3 biggees I mentioned when I wind up there. But I would trade some of the OC sun for a few of the great SF (even LA) eateries in a flash.

                                    1. re: tvdxer

                                      Exactly! I can't get into Chevy's, Chili's, or Olive Garden... so I don't go. Obviously, they don't need my money.

                                    2. For me, it is about the food. If no one knows about it, then a post to CH often informs them.

                                      If the food is bad, then I understand, and might hold off on that review.

                                      A crowd does not necessarily directly translate to good food. Way back when, in New Orleans, a highly-vaunted restaurant from a near-by town opened. We dined there on multiple occassions. They were always filled to overflowing, but the food was just bad, by NOLA standards. When we moved, their parking lot was filled, with people parking nearby and walking. After three visits, we would never go back.

                                      Personally, I do not need crowds to validate my choice of food.


                                      1. There have been a few times when I've eaten at an empty, or nearly empty, restaurant, and felt like crying. The food and service was so good, but because it was ethnic food that the surrounding community was not used to, the restaurant was empty. And then, seeing the local Wendy's (or some other chain store) being full was just infuriating.

                                        1. For me it really depends on the situation. One summer my friend and I found that our schedules matched well enough to hit a local mexican restaurant for delicious ranch eggs and yummy mexican style omlettes once a week. The first two times were fun even though the place was empty at that hour. It was usually just us and the cook. who was likely one of the owners. But the third time the guy seemed to resent us a little, and kind of moved restlessly around the eating area. It was very off-putting and we never went back. But recently we had lunch at a thai restaurant. There was a table of three businessmen that finished up and left right as we got there. We had a peaceful relaxing lunch with the small dining room all to ourselves. The winter afternoon sun shown on the beautiful elephant decorations, and the experience couldn't have been lovelier. As we were almost ready to leave a couple came in for take out and another couple sat down to eat. We only saw the one waitress, but she was calm and serene and made us feel as if we could take all the time in the world. She checked on us a couple of times during the meal, but she mostly stayed in the kitchen so our lunch felt very private. I left feeling renewed. So I think how the people working there feel about the place being empty is key. If a place is closing in twenty minutes, if there are no other diners, I usually don't stay even if the staff is very welcoming. I would feel awkward if they ended up keeping the place open just for us. But if one other table of customers is just ordering and the staff doesn't seem too jumpy, I'll take a chance and hope I don't end up feeling uncomfortable.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: givemecarbs

                                            It may have nothing to do with your experience,and it's no excuse for the restaurant, but I'm wondering whether the Mexican place closes between breakfast and lunch service the way some others do between lunch and dinner. One of my favorite local Chinese spots closes between 2 and 5PM every day. They're the only place around here I can think of that does that these days.

                                          2. Don't mind it if I've been there before. If it's our first time, and no one we know has been, well, we often take a shot (it's just one meal and if it's really terrible, it makes for great stories later!) but I won't leave if we walk into an empty place, it won't stay that way for long, we have a knack for hitting some places before the maddening throng arrives!

                                            A few weeks ago my husband pulled off a main road and followed signs for BBQ. We finally get to the BBQ place, which was heavily advertised with small signs (like a breadcrumb trail) but when we got there it looked like an abandoned building, the screen door was actually hanging by one hinge!! I did not see smoke or smell a thing... Just next door, a brick fast food joint had about 17 people lined up outside it and every picnic table was full. We looked at each other and decided to just keep driving, it was too weird- and I refuse to succumb to pressure because it's happened before at chains where people just want to eat QUANTITY and don't care they are shoveling beige food with abandon... I think I'm rambling now.

                                            1. their food must be delicious...haha

                                              1. Recently ate at Mezcal, in New Haven, and I was the only one there for lunch, until I was about ready to leave...then two women came in. Knowing the place, it did not bother me and I received first-rate service and fresh food. If you didn't know, you might very well have been scared off. They have never done a big lunch business, the three times I have been there. My gain. Restaurants at lunch time may be a wild card.
                                                Another Chowhounder said they were doing a bang-up business, that evening, at dinner time.

                                                1. This is another reason why I think restaurants AND servers should be grateful of all customers. Even though I might only order an entree and water, I'm taking up space in your restaurant that makes your restaurant look more full. I have good karma too - when I come in, the place generally gets more business soon afterwards.

                                                  I don't mind eating at an empty place, especially if it's not my first time. You get all the attention. I don't think they are really watching me. DH doesn't like to because he doesn't like any attention. I don't feel bad for them necessarily because I don't know them. After the meal, I'll know if their food is the reason why they don't have customers. Or I'll find out that it's mostly a take out business, or their customers are generally older who like to eat early.

                                                  I will NOT wait for a table anywhere, not when people all had money, and definitely NOT now that there's apparently a problem with the economy, although you can't really tell with most restaurants in my area.