Why Restaurants (Rightfully) Refuse To Seat Incomplete Parties

There are few things more frustrating than showing up for your restaurant reservation on time — or, God forbid, early — only to get a text from your plus one that they are running behind schedule. You meekly tell the hostess your name, and after looking it up, she glances beside you at the missing space where your date should be and tells you that the reservation can't seat you until every member of your party has arrived.

It sucks to have to wait for a table, especially one you made a reservation for weeks ago when you aren't the one who's done anything wrong. You confirmed the table for two at 7:30 p.m. — and you showed up on time. And now you're awkwardly standing in a small, crowded entryway trying not to get in the way. But this isn't happening because your server has some kind of vendetta against you. Seating incomplete parties can cause restaurants to lose money and piss off other customers, and they have every right to make you wait.

Restaurant chess

Restaurants — especially popular ones during peak hours like Saturday night or Sunday brunch — are playing a careful game of chess to fit in as many people as seamlessly as they can. Restaurants have limited space and limited manpower, and a slight miscalculation can be the equivalent of shaking that chessboard and allowing pieces to shift all out of order.

When people arrive late for a reservation, it eats into the time that other guests have to eat. Quick turnaround is essential for maximizing profits, and when people are seated without their party being complete, it increases the amount of time that table will be taken. Let's say a group is seated on time, but one guest shows up half an hour later. They probably won't order until the whole group has arrived, so an hour-long meal is now an hour and a half. The restaurant and the server are making less money than they would have if everyone had been punctual. And what if that late guest actually turns out to be a no-show? That's one less meal paid for, one less tip for the server, plus the cumulative effect of lost time.

No one wants to wait for their meal

Late reservations don't just have an effect on your party but on everyone else in the restaurant. Have you ever been waiting in hopes of a last-minute reservation at a popular restaurant, only to find yourself staring in fury at a table that refuses to leave, long after they've finished their food? Or two people taking up a six-person booth? Your late date can create exactly this kind of resentment. And it's even worse if your reservation is for a tasting menu with timed seatings where everyone else may be forced to wait for you.

Knowing all this, it makes sense that many restaurants have policies in place to forfeit your reservation after fifteen minutes. These days, many restaurants will even put a hold on your card when you make a reservation that will be charged if you don't show up. (Sometimes as much as $50 per person!) So if you know you're going to be late, notify the other members of your party and call the restaurant to inform them as well. If you're the one waiting, graciously accept a seat at the bar if one is offered, and don't give your hostess the stink eye just because she's doing her job.