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When should a party of 2 expect to be seated at a table for 4?

I've never posted on this board and I just read the "before you post" caveat, but I really believe that this is an appropriate "Not about food" subject -- and I definitely don't want responses to be influenced by the specifics of the restaurant in question, which shall remain anonymous.

So on Tuesday night, my wife and I went to one of our favorite restaurants. It's a well-known popular upscale restaurant in NYC -- the kind of place where a reservation is probably a necessity on busy nights and a good idea even on a Tuesday. They have outdoor seating too, but only if the weather cooperates, so they don't take reservations for the oudoor tables on any night.

On Tuesday the weather in NYC was favorable for outdoor eating -- about 70 degrees, not much wind, not too humid. We arrived at 9pm (the posted closing time on Tuesdays is 10) and asked to sit outside. We were escorted to the outdoor section, then asked to sit at a bar-like area and wait for our table to be ready. We were assured that this would not take long -- the couple sitting at one of the tables had already gotten their check and would presumably be leaving soon. So we waited.

The thing was, while we waited, we saw that there were 5 empty tables-for-4 available, and at least two of them were set and ready to go. In most restaurants, we're not shy about asking to sit at a larger table if there's one available -- it makes things much more pleasant and you don't have to sit nearly on top of other people, as tables for 2 are very often arranged when space is at a premium. So after waiting somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, wondering what the sense was of making us wait, we asked the chef/owner/manager if we could have one of the larger tables. We knew the manager from our prior visits – very involved, the kind of person who takes an interest in every table being served during the course of the evening. But the answer was no, the logic being, in essence, that if they did it for us they’d have to do it for everyone. To us this made no sense. There was no guarantee when the two people at the other table would actually leave despite having paid already. More importantly, there was no chance on a Tuesday night with less than an hour until quitting time that so many larger parties would arrive such that one of them would have to wait for a table because of us. A somewhat less rigid rule seemed perfectly appropriate under the circumstances.

We debated on this -- very politely on both sides, but pretty adamant at the same time. If it had not been one of our favorite places and such a pleasant night for eating outdoors, we would have walked out, and we told the chef/owner/manager as much. This went on until the table for 2 actually opened up. Our total wait time was between 10 and 15 minutes. But in our opinion, none of it was necessary and it left a pretty sour taste in our mouths.

As it turned out, dinner was great (that’s why we stayed). They had changed the menu a bit since the last time we were there and we tried one new starter and one new main, both of them quite good. Very attentive service, which is the norm there, and ultimately a very pleasant experience after the first 15 minutes. But I still believe we were the victims of bad judgment – of the type of rigid bureaucratic thinking I’d expect from government employees (where I work), not from someone for whom creativity (and flexibility?) is critical to success. And (of course) we were the next-to-last table to leave. None of the tables for 4 got used after 9pm that night.

Comments and opinions eagerly solicited.

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  1. Regardless of the time, I would expect to be sat at the next available table, even if I was only with one other person and the table was meant for four. Given the lateness of your visit, I believe this even more.

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      1. The only difference between a two top and a four top is two place settings.

        7 Replies
        1. re: PotatoHouse

          In some restaurants yes, but in others no. It just depends.

          Hunt

          1. re: PotatoHouse

            I'm a little curious where you dine. I've been in many restaurants, high-end places included, where many two-tops are something like 2 ft by 2 ft or 2 1/2 ft or thereabouts. There is no way in hell you can have 4 diners at such a table without having to eat off plates held in your lap and constantly knocking off things.

            1. re: huiray

              You obviously have missed my point.

              1. re: PotatoHouse

                I don't see how I did.

                Your post strongly suggests that a "two top" table and a "four top" table is the same rectangular/square size and the only difference is whether there are settings put down for two diners or for 4 diners. My point was that many "two top" tables are MUCH smaller than what your "four top" table would, by inference, be sized at, and that it would be nigh impossible to have four settings (and hence four diners) at that small table. In other cases, as Bill Hunt alludes to, the tables are indeed about the same size and it is THEN merely whether the table is set for two or for four.

                1. re: huiray

                  h - I think PH was saying an unused table (2 or 4) is a tab unfilled, sat or paid, not the geometry of the surface. 2 in the hand vs 4 in the bush and all. the establishment can maybe hope that a crowd of four tops will flock in, but it does seem short sighted in a space that doesn't book reservations anyway.

                  1. re: hill food

                    If that is what he meant, then he should have said so. His post as worded meant exactly what I wrote about, as it seems to also for BH above. We are not clairvoyants here (maybe you are), you need to say clearly what you wish to convey.

          2. When I read the title of your post, my thought was..."only when the other two people in your party are collecting their cocktails in the bar and getting ready to join you in the dining room." But you present a compelling case. If there are multiple tables open, very limited time left and a camper at the only 2-top looking anywhere near ready to turn...the resto probably should seat you at the 4-top for goodwill purposes. But it's up to the restaurant, obviously, and who knows if there would be a rush of 3+ parties coming in at the last hour. I'd ask to be seated at the available table with the proviso that if a 2 top opened up and they needed my 4-top, I'd be willing to move (but the chances of them having to move my party would be quite small, I'd guess).

            1. Let's see, an hour before closing on a weeknight. There are five tables for 4 open - probably several more inside. I would think that seating you at one of those tables rather than having you wait for the 2 top to leave would not only make sense in making you happy, it will make the kitchen/servers happy as well because you may not have been the next to last table to leave. You might have been finished when the majority of customers were done and employees might have been "cut" earlier: also saving the restaurant money-making the owners happy.
              Maybe they're used to getting a rush at 9PM that didn't materialize that particular night. Other than that, IMO, it's quite stupid from any possible way to look at it, whether from the perspective of the customer, the staff (FOH and BOH) and the restaurant owners. I tend to go along with CanadaGirl on the seating issue. I can see not wanting to seat 2 at a table set for 8 but to seat 2 at a table for 4? I bet at least 80% of the time that DW and I eat out, we end up sitting at a table for 4 anyway - even when we have reservations for 2 . It's really not too difficult to pick up two place settings.
              To sum it up, they were stupid.

              1 Reply
              1. re: bobbert

                I was thinking the same thing on the timing issue. Why would you want to make one of your later tables even later? And since they were outside tables, the settings would have to be removed before closing, so why re-set the 2-top instead of using the already set 4 top? Seems more like a decision a rookie host who didn't want to break the rules would make than an experienced manager. Places near theaters and other event spaces often do get a late post-show dessert/cocktail rush, so that is a possibility.

                When should you expect it? Off the top of my head, when one or both parties use wheelchairs and need extra room. Any other time, you can ask, but shouldn't expect it.