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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.

    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.


        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.

            2. Mickey,

              Some good points. When tables are ready, we are usually seated at them, regardless of whether they are a 4-top, or a 2-top. Leaving clients waiting, just "in case" someone comes in, is not good business - though if there WERE reservations for those tables, the I can take the restaurant's point.

              For us, there are almost always tons of wine glasses. In our profile in many restaurants around the world, mention is made to seat us at a 4-top, just from experience. If we have not dined at an establishment before, I will mention the "sommelier's pairing," and the wine glasses, and let them make the call. At some, I know the table number to request, and have almost always gotten that table.

              Sorry that you had to wait a bit, even when it appeared that tables were available, but if the meal was a hit, then maybe it was not a disaster. Still, unless there were reasons against it, were it my restaurant, you would have been seated ASAP, and the extra settings cleared.

              Just my opinions,


              1. This reminds me of one time, years ago, while I was hostessing at a very busy casual restaurant.

                In those days, we always sat 2 tops at 4 top tables, regardless...

                It was a busy Saturday night, and we had a long line out the door.

                I was flustered to begin with..

                I sat a couple of 2 lady partners at a small table for 2, and the next table available was the 4 top next to them, in which I sat the next two cutomers, who happened to be a heterosexual couple.

                Well,one of the women at the 2 top called me over, and proceeded to inform me that I must have a psychological issue with men.

                I obviously must think men are superior to women because I gave the table with a MAN the larger table, even though the 2 women were first in line..

                Oh brother!

                This went on and on.

                After the onslaught I finally just said "I gave you the first table available.", and walked away.

                I was shy in those days, but if it were now, I certainly wold have said "Actually, I think YOU are the one who has issues with men!"

                Honestly, after that night I never hostessed again..nightmare!

                1 Reply
                1. re: NellyNel


                  You can please some people all the time, all the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time. "Stuff" just happens. Who knows - had it been the other way around, you could have been nailed by the hetro-couple for favoritism?

                  In my personal case, were it not for those danged wine glasses, I like the intimacy of a 2-top (adequately sized and spaced), as I do not get to dine with my lovely wife, often enough - yet, there ARE those wine glasses...


                2. Assuming the 4-tops were not on reservation, I simply don't understand why any well run restaurant would not have seated the OP at one of them.

                  In my experierence a 4-top is the same size as a 2-top but with more cutlery. It is no different from when I dine alone - the place has to clear one or, sometimes, three settings when it seats me. Never seems to be problem.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Harters

                    I think that the operative term here is "well run restaurant." As to size, that can differ, and sometimes greatly - just depends.

                    Still, if there are open, set tables, and a couple waiting, I'd have seated them at the best table available, unless specifically reserved.

                    Too often, I have encountered "reserved" tables, held, not for specific reservations, but "just in case." That has never gone over with me. I am here, and am here now. Why would one hold tables, "just in case?" This has happened in Rome, in Hawai`i and even in some Mainland US cities. As stated - does not sit well.


                  2. I was with you and thought I understood the restaurant's position til you gave the manager's side of the argument, which is puzzling. For me, the obvious situation here is that all the servers that covered those tables have been cut and have left. The tables have been cleaned and prepped properly for the next day. The "ideal" at this point is to keep any new tables to the sections designated for the couple of closing servers, who can be very busy waiting on the latecomers throughout and well past the stated closing time. My thought was that they wanted to keep the clean tables clean and keep the tables for the closers to a manageable level - if you seat everyone that comes in at every open table as soon as they show up,t he closer could be waiting on 10, 15 tables at once and NOBODY is going to get good service then, whereas if the diner could just be patient for about 10 minutes, one of the tables will turn and then you can get proper service. But that wasn't the explanation you were given. Maybe it wasnt' the reason, or maybe they felt it too complicated to explain. If it were me, I would have said well, we *can* seat you at the empty table, but we only have 1 server on right now and she is juggling 10 tables right now and I want to make sure you get excellent service. If you can wait about 10 minutes, I believe a couple of her tables are leaving and then we can make sure you get the service you deserve. If you were so inclined, you could offer to comp them a drink while they wait, or bring bread or something. Is it possible the "we would have to do that for everyone" comment was meant this way?: we can't seat everyone the second they arrive just because there are open tables, because if we did, everyone would get crappy service as at the end of the night, there are only 1 or 2 servers working, so we have to pace things."

                    I find that oftentimes what's appears to be going on to the patron is just not the way things are going in the restaurant because they don't understand the behind the scenes of running a place. There may be a short line of customers and empty tables if you show up at 4:30 as well, because all the servers aren't on yet and if you have the lunch closers picking up extra tables in all corners of the restaurant, nobody is getting good service and they're going to be irritated. but if they can wait 10 minutes, a fresh server is there and they'll get prompt service as they should. I don't know that taknig the time to try to explain all this stuff to patrons is really worthwhile as they don't really seem to have empathy or understanding of shift work that takes place in restaurants. It's not like everyone shows up at once and then works completely until the exact same time and then bang, they close the doors, lights off and they leave. There are nuances to how to keep service flowing through the arrival and departure of servers, and sometimes for you to have the best service requires waiting a few minutes. I think the flexibility is needed more on the part of the patron and not the owner. Trust that the managers and servers are aware of where you are. If the people who paid had lingered more than 10 or 15, they would have found somewhere else for you to sit.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: rockandroller1

                      "For me, the obvious situation here is that all the servers that covered those tables have been cut and have left. The tables have been cleaned and prepped properly for the next day. The "ideal" at this point is to keep any new tables to the sections designated for the couple of closing servers, who can be very busy waiting on the latecomers throughout and well past the stated closing time."

                      Based on the OP, it was an outdoor patio, so I don't think what you are suggesting was the case.

                      1. re: rockandroller1

                        Good points except in this case I don’t think any of that happened. I think they were blindly following a stupid in-house policy that states “we never, ever, seat 2 people at a table for 4”.

                        You do touch on something that most people who haven’t been in the business don’t realize. Sometimes seating you even when the table may be ready could throw off the entire restaurant. There are so many variables working behind the scenes; maybe the kitchen told the FOH to slow things down as they are on the brink of crashing and making everyone unhappy. Maybe the server for that section is in the weeds and adding you to that empty table that’s beckoning might not only ruin your meal, but the rest of that servers section as well. Maybe the dishwasher is in the weeds and they don’t have any glasses ready for another table. Almost anything can and does happen.

                        Things in a restaurant have to get paced. A well run restaurant really does work like a smooth running machine and there is a sort of choreography to the whole scene. A really good hostess in a busy place is not usually just a pretty face. She (or he) plays an integral role in making sure everything runs smoothly and really does have the power to screw up the entire evening for a lot of people. Next time out, kick back and check it out – maybe you’ll get a better appreciation for how much really goes into serving you a nice meal.

                        Oh yeah, once again I don’t think any of that played a role in the OP’s case. I think the restaurant was screwed.

                      2. In addition to some have said that it's odd, given the number of extra tables, I think it's harder on the workers because an hour is a good amount of time to serve people at a nice restaurant but 45 minutes cuts it too close to close. Had they seated you earlier, tables wouldn't go empty and you'd be out of their hair, rather than being one of the last to leave.

                        Generally, I can see why a restaurant wouldn't seat two at a 4 top but in this case, it sounds like someone followed the rules too closely w/out thinking.

                        1. If my party of two is next in line, and there is a four-top available but no two-tops, then I expect to be seated at the four-top immediately. Especially if I am familiar with the owner/manager. In fact, if I am not immediately seated in such a situation, then I will usually leave. If it is a place that I frequent, where I know the owner/manager, then it will be much longer than usual before I return. If I don't know the owner/manager, then I usually don't return.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: MonMauler

                            I would not even include a relationship with the management.

                            Were I that management, seating a client immediately, if tables are available, would be "job-one."

                            If servers were assigned to other, near-by tables, I would have instructed them to work THAT table, or just re-assigned them to THAT table.

                            Let's look at this another way, shall we? It is near closing time. Do we want patrons to wait, until other tables are cleared, and then their staff must "stay late?" Or, do we want to please a patron, and let everyone leave/close on time?

                            This just does not make sense to me, but then I do not own, nor do I run a restaurant, so maybe there is something very important, that I am missing.


                          2. Mick,
                            The management used poor judgemen, but not without reason. Every restaurants policy should be to give the guests the best seat in the house when it's available. You seem like a reasonable man who presented his case calmly and with rationale. Some of the public are not like that. When you said the managers response was "If we do it for you then we'd have to do it for everyone" was not a response to this particular situation at this particular time but rather the restaurant operations as a whole. You should have been sat at the 4 top that night, and should the next time you enter the restaurant, it was a busier time and business dictated you sit at a duece, you would not expect nor DEMAND to sit at a four top "because it's been done before". Some of the public do that. They don't realize that the circumstances at another time were vastly different than the present situation and to seat them at a four top would mean a lose of revenue for the restaurant. Which is, at the bottom line a business.
                            The worse part of situations like those, when dealing with the unreasonable, is that the restaurant always comes off looking like the bad guy. There is no nice way to say "We can do it for you this time, but there is no guarentee it will be possible in the future". Without sounding ungrateful, but people sometimes need disclaimers.I don't think I work at that restaurant but I understand it.
                            I'm glad that you continue to patronize this restaurant. It sounds like it's worth it. But just a small post script. Like the government, policy only gets changed when there is an outcry from the public and perhaps you should send an email or letter. It certainly couldn't hurt.

                            1. I think the fact that this is NYC explains it all. The patrons will ask for all sorts of special accommodations that nobody else in the world would think of, and the owners don't want to hear about it. People love to argue. Owners just get tired of it. Fuggetaboutit.

                              1 Reply
                              1. I will preface this by saying we own a service related business and all of our customers, large and small are valuable to us and we treat them that way.
                                I would expect to be seated at a 4 top if it was open next no matter what. If I were made to wait for a 2 top and 4 tops were open, I would be gone and not be back . There are lots of great places to spend my money and that would appreciate my business. I hate being shoe horned into some of the tables for 2 as well. They are just not big enough sometimes for basic plates or some of the monstrosity serving apparatuses they have now, let alone glasses. The restaurant can do what they please, for whatever they perceive the reason to be but they would not get anymore of my business, which might be a party of 8 next time. That place has forgotten why they are in business.....the customer.

                                1. Many times for a business lunch I'll ask for a table for three, and if asked, explain the third will be joining us later. I'll especially do this at those places where the table for two is very small and there is no place to spread out a daytimer or notepad.

                                  It never occurred to me that I was hurting anyone; maybe at a crowded restaurant I am depriving the wait staff of additional tips.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: GraydonCarter

                                    There are little lies on both sides. when they say the kitchen dropped or messed up your order, chances are the server forgot to ring it in and now the kitchen is doing it on the fly so they can get it to you ASAP. People are human and make mistakes, but the customers aren't so forgiving of those mistakes.

                                    That being said, no need to be disingenuous about this. If you'd rather wait for a larger table, just say you have 2 but need a larger table than a 2 top as it's a business lunch and that you're willing to wait for that table if necessary. As to depriving the tip, it fluctuates so much from customer to customer that they could have FOUR people sitting there and not make the $ that they could off your party of 2, it just depends on what you order and how you tip.

                                  2. When I walk into a restaurant by myself with my newspaper in hand and am shown to a small (two-top type) table I always ask for a bigger one, preferably also with more light, so I can read my paper comfortably. I am usually obliged, unless there was clearly reservation-delimited availability of tables. This usually is the case for me at mid-range to lower-upper restaurants. Lower-end ones sometimes might not even have larger tables. (If I am at a very high-end place, I wouldn't be reading a newspaper as I dine!)

                                    It sounds like you didn't have a reservation - is that correct? In any case, I am more inclined to ask for a larger table and expect to get one at a place when I walk in at a place without reservations, if I see tables available, although I probably would not if I knew they were approaching their busy period (or was in the midst of a heavy period. At a place that required reservations for all meals I may still ask but would not be too put out if I was not obliged - except when it is late in the dining period and there are clearly lots of open larger tables and there was no indication that they were already spoken for.

                                    nypeaches above put it well. Flexibility on both sides should apply (but often doesn't). There's a restaurant that I used to patronize all the time where the owners-hosts always aimed to seat me (eating solo) at a 4-top or better. I would sometimes decline the table and insist they seat me at one of the small two-tops, even if I had my paper with me, when they were clearly slammed and there were folks in parties of three or four waiting for a table besides myself. They appreciated it.

                                    From what you have said in your case I think I would also have been annoyed by the manager's attitude and thought it insensible on his part. Luckily for him the food was good nonetheless.

                                    1. You're much more patient than I am.

                                      If the owner wants to debate about seating a couple at a 4 top. I take that as the owner saying, "I really don't care about you, but I just want your money." My wife and I would have left.

                                      1. You are right, in my opinion, and the manager is worng. It's simply poor service.

                                        1. >Comments and opinions eagerly solicited.
                                          Mr. C:

                                          Assuming the only issue is "what if I need a 4 top for a larger party" ...
                                          Given you had some kind of relationship with the Management ...
                                          Given that this is Wall Street territory ...

                                          You should have offered to post a bond for $X, say $20, which would have been forfeit if they actually needed one of the 4 tops in the last hour of business.

                                          Maybe you could have even found someone even more familiar with the restos demand patterms ... say one of the staff ... who would have sold you insurance against having to pay.

                                          Micro-options and micro-insurance are very underrated.

                                          ok tnx.