Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bad tables in restaurants

I’m one of those people that hate to be shown to a bad table. In addition to the discomfort of being by the kitchen or next to the screaming baby, I always take it as a personal insult. The host just assumes I’m an idiot and doesn’t know the difference. Or I’m too unimportant to be shown a decent table. Better to leave the good one open just in case the Pope should happen in off the street.

I feel all diners should enter a restaurant wearing a badge. Either a green one or red one.

The green one means “Hi, my name is Gomer and you can seat me in the kitchen next to the grease trap if you want, or put my party of eight at a table the size of a silver dollar in the section with no view and trainee waitress.”

And the red one means, “Stop. I don’t pay your prices to sit next to the coat room, behind the bus station, under the hurricane-strength air conditioning vent, or next to Fran Drescher. Yes, I’d like a booth. Why would I prefer a table that’s in every waiter’s path? And if you try to give me a bad table I’m only going to ask for a better one so save yourself the step.”

Restaurant management might balk claiming everyone will then surely wear red buttons. But you know what? I bet 70% of the population still opts for the green.


Nadine said...

I'm definitely a Red Button wearer. In addition to a good table, unless the restaurant is packed, I also want a large table. Even a table for two is too small if you have dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, multiple glasses, coffee cups, saucers, salt & pepper shakers (although pepper in a shaker is a sham), breadbaskets, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that someone else, thankfully, has to wash after you've finished dining.

Anonymous said...

The picture is killing me Ken. As someone who is usually happily eating alone at the bar, there are also good and bad seats there, too, it's rather like a science. How could Frasier stand his usual seat with all the MA cold drafts coming in??

Anonymous said...

Several years ago, my husband and I were seated next to the restrooms. The cloying scent of deodorizer and the constant traffic were very annoying. So we asked for another table and we got one. But I no longer frequent that restaurant. Diane

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Or you get you dad to be the table assigner...

John said...

Dinosaur Barbeque in Syracuse -- corner table on the north side, next to the window but behind the speakers and the stage (though I will admit, if the band playing that night decides to crank the db's up to 110, sitting behind instead of in front of the speaker system might not be the worst thing in the world).

Unknown said...

First, I love your blog. I'm subscribed, and read every single one. Funny, insightful, and full of good screenwriting tips (my initial reason for following you).

As to this post, I've worked in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. In seating people, I've discerned one constant: whatever I think is a good table, the guest thinks is a crummy table.

Table for two? 'We want a big booth.'

A big booth? 'Do you have anything more intimate?'

In the middle of the room? 'Can't we get something off to the side?'

Off to the side? 'We want to be more "in the action."'

It goes on. Further, people often make requests like 'a nice quiet table.' It so happens *a lot* of busy, popular restaurants don't have 'quiet' tables. So now they're unhappy. But they're also not willing to go to a quiet, unpopular restaurant ...

Yes. There are crappy tables. I've been seated at them myself: next to a stairwell; next to the kitchen door; next to the server station at the bar.

The thing is, these tables only exist because there is a demand for them. So many people want to dine, they will accept anything offered. If the restaurant was not busy (in general), there is no need to seat someone next to the busser station. No need even for a table to be there in the first place.

Most of the time these tables are used as a last resort. Or close to it - when you're a party of two and there's a table that seats four that's not reserved, but they're hoping a four-top (restaurant lingo) will walk in and they can maximize their business.

Don't get me wrong. I feel your pain - and have felt it myself - but it's not like most restaurants just want to fill up the garbage tables first. They're making calculated predictions about what the future will bring. Like going for the easy force at second instead of a dicey play at the plate. Your two-top walk-in is the .259 shortstop on-deck.

Vermonter17032 said...

Agreed. A corollary of this is when you're seated at a perfectly nice table, and the host then seats a party of frat boys next to you -- especially when you're dining with a woman you're trying to impress, or alone and reading a book with your meal. The emptier the restaurant, the more likely it is that the host will stick them next to you.

Brian said...

How about that table near the front door where the crowd stands and watches you eat on a busy Saturday night?

Doktor Frank Doe said...

RED! Problem is, most host/hostesses (Even in good restaurants) are trained green, hell they're whole life has trained them green.

I once went with a friend to Swenson's, (I know I know) the whole restaurant was empty except for one little pocket of screaming friggin kids having a birthday party. The hostess walked us right over to sit in the dead-center nucleus of this mess. She smiled and asked "How's this?" I looked at her in disbelief and responded "Are you out of your fucking mind?".

My other pet-peever is the same thing on a less maniacal scale. Empty restaurant and the host/hostess seating tables in groupings. That way even though the rest of the friggin place is empty we can all listen to one another's conversations. GRRRRR

jackscribe said...

I was continually amazed at the pecking order at The "21" Club's seating when I worked there as a manager. The most coveted tables are in the first section. During the week, the banquette tables on either side of the kitchen door and round tables in front of the door were always first in demand. On weekends, when the 'annointed ones'we out of town, those tables were usually avoided by the 'real' people.

blogward said...

I can just imagine what name the restaurant staff would have for red button wearers. Something like 'pimples'. And what if you, as a red button wearer, were sat next to a table full of green button wearers? Ken, you just haven't thought this through.

WV: carsi = "Ugh! I'm going to be carsi -"

Mary Stella said...

Ahh, Ken, just wait until you have grandchildren one day and have to go to a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party. Anything short of a table in the middle of Times Square at midnight on 12/31 will make you happy by comparison.

wv=exhhorke: Barfing while breathing out.

Alan Tomlinson said...

I love your blog and your opinions about writing. That said, in my world, people eighteen years of age and older would not be allowed to step foot into a restaurant until they had worked in a restaurant for at least three months.

To be sure, the great majority of restaurants are unbelievably badly managed, and be assured, if you get bad service, it's because of bad management. Nevertheless, I agree completely with the poster who said that tastes with respect to table preferences vary wildly and servers and hosts are not paid nearly enough fucking money to read your twisted minds. Expressing an opinion in advance can often save aggravation. So can a sawed-off shotgun if you're in a place that's badly managed.


Alan Tomlinson

Steve Marshall said...

I remember an experience at a restaurant in Telluride when I was dating an African-American woman. They actually looked SHOCKED when they saw us together...and this was 1994, not 1950. When we asked for a table, the showed us past several very nice and very empty tables to one in a back corner of the restaurant, near the kitchen. We didn't ask for another one. We just left.

By Ken Levine said...

Alright! I've hit on a hot topic.

I do sympathize with anyone who works in a restaurant. That can't be easy. And yes, people do have different preferences. But I suggest this yardstick. If Harrison Ford came into the restaurant instead of you with the same number in his party would he be shown to the same table you are?

Let the controversy continue.

Cap'n Bob said...

Before I sit down I do a 360-degree scan of the adjoining tables. If I see a table with a baby or small children, I ask for another one. If I see a loud cell phone user (the worst offender in my book), I ask for another table. If I'm one step away from joining the kitchen crew, same thing. Once I took my daughter to the Outback for her birthday. The hostess seated us next to a booth with about 40 college drunks whooping it up. My party and the drunks were the only people in the place at the time. I not only got another table, but had them open another section of the restaurant.
This all leads up to the problem of some people being unable to behave in public. They seem oblivious to the fact that there are others around them that don't want to hear about their colonoscopy or Aunt Tillie's moustache, or the great deal they got on a hot tub. And why is it that every table with two or more women contains one whose cackle can be heard for six miles in all directions? And she laughs at everything. Hmmm, I think I'll take my next order to go.

Joe said...

Across the road from the University of Miami there is a deli. Pretty much the best one outside NYC.

Lots of old NYers.


I've been going there for epochs.

Mind you, I'm neither old, nor a NYer. To the assiduous observer my rather Mediterranean mien indicates pretty clearly I'm something of a tourist.

Still, I have always had great service and the food is great and all that. Like I said, I have been going there for epochs and, every time, I get seated in the same general section. Not terrific, but not awful tables.

Formica. Napking holder, salt and pepper shares. Rickety chairs. You have to ask for water.


One day I went with my friend Dave, who is Not Even Remotely Mediterranean and is also a habitué of the place. I figured we'd get seated in the same general area, but NO.

We get led past the counter and the restrooms into a whole other section. With booths. And real wood tables. And a steel bucket of pickles and glasses of water (or seltzer) with wedges of lime.

Now I know better.

Mary Stella said...

Across the road from the University of Miami there is a deli. Pretty much the best one outside NYC.

Joe, are you talking about the Bagel E. place in the plaza with the eye-burning shiny roof?

The food's terrific. Real bagels. If you ask for crisp bacon, it arrives cooked to absolute perfection. Makes lesser bacon look like it needs Viagra.

There's another section? I always get seated in the formica section. I'm half-Italian and look all Italian. Every time I've been in there the clientele has been one big melting pot. Now I'm going to have to look for those wooden tables. I want the pickle, dammit.

wv=ballsiti. That needs no definition, it's a funny word all in itself.

A. Buck Short said...

Regardless of seating, on this second night of Passover, we're asking everyone to seriously consider leaving an extra goblet of wine out for Lindsay Lohan. All converted up, but now with apparently no place to go. Who needs this kind of tsouris! Incidentally, the kind of eateries I tend to frequent, my preferred table is directly below the Heimlich Maneuver schematic.

Leo Edwards said...

I think the most annoying place to sit at a restaurant is by the door. There is a Fridays be me that has a table right by the door, literally. If there is a wait and you are sitting there, you get people leaning on your table and standing right next to it, talking, and watching you eat your dinner. It gets really annoying. After sitting there, i will sit anywhere in a restaurant except by the door.

Julie said...

I currently work as a host and if you want another table, ask for it and you'll probably get it, but don't expect us to read your fucking mind. I have a responsibility both to you as the customer and to the servers, who need tables to make money. So if the table never gets sat, the server in the section gets pissed.

Also, if you insist on being a camper (staying at a table for an eternity), you'd better tip like it. If it's busy, your server just lost three tables because you couldn't leave. That's fine, but make some effort to recoup him the money. And though I smile and say it's fine, no, your party of 2 does not need the 6-top booth.

John said...

Ken --

The better question would be if Harrison Ford came into a restaurant with the same sized party, and he proceeded to get his chest waxed, would he still get a better table than you do?

Joe said...

Mary S.,

The very one.

All my life I have been getting seated in the -- there's no getting away from it -- the Gentile Section.

But when I go with Dave, we go past this wormhole, through a warp in the space-time continuum and VOILA! The Non Gentile Section with ridiculously excellent picklery, compliments of the house.

And asking for the Magical Section is both futile and a faux pas.

Harold X said...

This goes back 15 years or more; don't know that it's still true. But:

The worst table at the Roxy was on the left side of the stage, right next to a door that leads to the restrooms and dressing rooms. You're at the lip of the stage, and looking at the act from behind, listening to a weird blend of the audience and monitor mixes. The worst.

Waitresses would put a "reserved" sign on the table. Inevitably, some big spender would tip them extra for what appears (if you're an idiot) to be preferred seating.

Question for tomorrow: Last night on "New Christine," which is set in Los Angeles, she comes into a bit of money. As she's in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches for the gang, her ex-husband marvels that she's using mayonnaise.

"Not just mayonnaise," she chirps, proudly, "Hellman's!"

Now, since Hellman's is only called that east of the Rockies (it's Best Foods out here), was she having it flown in, or are the writers (a) from New York and (b) clueless as to the contents of their local Ralph's?

(Some years back, on the original, set-in-Vegas, CSI, one of the investigators says something to the effect that he's never without his Thomas Guide. Only problem was (and I checked) at the time, at least, there wasn't a Thomas Bros. Guide for anywhere near Las Vegas.)

Gary Zimmer said...

I prefer to be seated by Karla, served by Diane, and thrown out by Woody! Preferably, after Norm has put three of my beers on his tab....

Anonymous said...

My two favorite memories on this topic:

Our family went to Sunday brunch at a very middle brow spot when my daughter was a toddler. Though there was plenty of space and it was early, they seated us alone in the side room around the corner, assuming she wouldn't behave. I bitched and told them we wanted to eat with the white people (we are white). We were reseated.

I went to lunch with one of the few Hollywood types I know, at a restaurant in Hollywood where he had made reservations. They seated us in a table in the hall with a splendid view of the waiters coming and going like tennis balls crossing the net. My friend--who at one time was married to a Mafioso's duahger-- launched into an epic harangue worthy of Scot Rudin or Jon Dolgen at their best. We were reseated; the place went out of business.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Not sure if this has been mentioned in the thread (I did read through it all but may have missed it), but all restaurants have bad tables, and all restaurants are aware of their existence. The problem is that bad tables are unavoidable; if you open a restaurant, you WILL have a bad table or two somewhere in your dining room. It's a fact of life. Like gravity.

The big factor that isn't mentioned here, I think, is that many, if not most, restaurants divide their dining rooms into "sections", with each server taking a particular section. This is to avoid the servers having to bounce all over the entire dining room and helps to ensure that no customers will be overlooked (if a server knows that this cluster of tables right here is his responsibility, then he presumably won't fail to notice a new group of people sitting in his station).

Now, most restaurants I've worked in rotate the stations so that you don't have the same person waiting the same section of the dining room each and every night. Thus, every night, someone else gets the section with the bad table or two. But here's the rub: hosts are trained to avoid filling sections too quickly -- i.e., you try to avoid giving a server two or three new tables in succession, which suddenly causes them to get overworked and make it possible to overlook customers.

This also implies that hosts will attempt to seat customers at the bad tables. They do this not to screw those customers, but to try to keep the serving staff evenly worked through, and to make sure that the poor server who has the crappy table(s) that day still gets a chance to earn some money. Believe me, if you're the server whose section includes the table everybody asks to be moved from, you take home less money that day than you would otherwise, through no fault of your own.

All I'm saying is that when you get put at a crappy table, there's a very good chance they're not assuming that you're too stupid to know it's a crap table.

Cap'n Bob said...

I understand what you're saying, Jaquandor, but my concern is a pleasant dining experience, not helping a server's tip take. As you say, they rotate the crops so it evens out at the end of the week.

Went to Denny's once for lunch. The place was full of truckers and I was a longhair. Sat at the counter completely ignored for half an hour. Finally pushed all the salt & pepper shakers, menus, sugar holder, and whatever else was in front of me off the counter and left.

Wayne said...

The seater at California Pizza Kitchen was leading us to a crappy seat. I was going to use Ken's "if Harrison Ford came in" yardstick. But then I thought it would make him feel bad. It was Mark Hamill.

Chris Riesbeck said...

Restaurant management might balk claiming everyone will then surely wear red buttons. But you know what? I bet 70% of the population still opts for the green.

So, if I wear a green button (and my friends know I would), will you at least say thank you on the way to the good tables?

WV: pressude -- a prosciutto-like substance, made by flattening ... well, you really don't want to know

Mary Stella said...

Joe said: Mary S., The very one.

I am ridiculously entertained that I actually know, and have been to, the same restaurant as a one-name-only stranger who reads and comments on my favorite blog.

It's like six degrees of Ken Levine. Or something.

The "or something" could be the percocet for the lingering pain from my carpal tunnel surgery, or I'm just a blog dork. Or both.

Joe, next time I leave the Keys and happen to visit Bagel E., I'll remember this and you bet I'll search out the secret room. "Would you like extra pickles with that prestige, ma'am?"

The last time I was in that restaurant, I was having breakfast with a good friend from Coral Gables (a fairly successful author). We accidentally knocked the sugar packet container off of our rickety formica table. It shattered all over the floor. Maybe that's why I don't get access into the good room.

Cyndi said...

You know... I'm currently doing an internship at a magazine - and as that kind of lends my life to being... well, POOR, I also work at a restaurant on the side. I served tables through college as well, and I have to tell you, Ken, that as much as I'm a huge huge fan of your work and this blog, this post bugged the hell out of me. It actually breaks my heart a little that you're one of THESE people - and by "these" I mean incredibly self-entitled and kind of, dare I say it, classist. The restaurant I work in is in Beverly Hills, and dealing with people constantly this self-entitled makes me actually hate people sometimes. There is a seating rotation. There are only so many "great" tables. It's not that hosts in restaurants WANT to put people near the kitchen, it's that they need to seat the poor server that has to work that section. When you want to bitch about the table, think about the server that isn't making any money becuase every table wants to wear your "red button" and be put at a better spot. THEN you're more likely to get worse service, as well, because you're going to end up forcing a host to double or triple seat a server that may have more "acceptable" tables. I had a customer one time inform me that if I KNEW who she was (the wife of the man who produced the sound of music - who gives a fuck?!) that I would have sat her at a window table, obviously. I wanted to tell her she could shove her window table... Anyway. There are bigger things in life to care about than the table you end up sat at in a restaurant. To every "red button" wearer - think slightly less about how much you oh so deserve the exact spot you want and more about the work that goes into running a restaurant - people serving the table you refuse to sit at (you're not the only one), the host that you obviously think is incompetent that is in actuality doing their job and trying to go by a seating rotation and then maybe consider how much stating these kind of inane issues with the luxury of going out to eat whenever you want sends out a clear message that you've probably not really worked a working-class job a day in your life. That's a bit harsh and over-generalized. I'll step off my soap box now.

By Ken Levine said...


I can't speak for others but for me it's not a case of considering myself entitled. It's not like I feel I deserve a window table or the best booth or the "power" table or any of that bullshit. When there are six open tables I don't want to be seated at clearly the worst one. And yes, it depends on the type of restaurant. I'm far less sensitive to table placement at Bob's Big Boy than I am Morton's Steak House. But here's my feeling. When you go to a nice place you're paying for the whole dining experience.

I acknowledged that it's hard to run a restaurant and I do think that people who hog a table all night when a place is crowded deserve to have a bottle of ketchup "accidentally" spilled all over them. Still, if I'm choosing your restaurant over all the choices out there and paying $30 an entree is it too unreasonable to ask not to be seated next to the kitchen with servers banging the chair fifty times on their way in and out? That's all I'm saying.

But what restaurant in Beverly Hills do you work at? Can you get me a table with a view???

TE said...

I hope that sometime in her internship, Cyndi learns about paragraphs.

Otherwise, she's going to be in that restaurant for a long time.

manorlyappearance said...

As a former hostess, I'm one of those people who hated to have to deal with people who felt they were too good for certain tables.

By the way, I never once looked at someone and figured "Ah, not worthy of a booth."

Anonymous said...

I work in a resturaunt while in school and if u feel the need to complain on where your seated getting a grip on your life if that's the most stress u have then our off pretty good...hosts don't have it out for u there trying to do there job and give each waitor equal tables and if u had any commen. Sense whatsoever u would have figured it out...

Anonymous said...

True story: went to a Cheeseburger in Paradise joint in the middle of a snowstorm. The place was open, we even asked if they were planning on closing and sending everyone home, but hey assured us they were not. We were then seated in the first table, closest to the door, and we were the only people in the place besides the staff. Other people did come in while we were eating, and of course we were blasted with the cold air and sleet evertime the door opened. Seems like this happens to me every time I go out to eat, so now if they don't show me a good table I pick out the one I want and tell them I'm sitting there. If there aren't any other available, I tell them I'll wait until a better table opens up. Am I a jerk? If need be.

Rob said...

I don't like the guy at the table next to me to be sitting closer to me than my dining companion. In NYC, a lot of restaurants are laid out this way., but I always ask for an alternative if I see one available. If there is nothing else I will tolerate it but I will enjoy the experience a lot less.

Anonymous said...

I'm always placed in back rooms where the crying babies are. The funny thing is that I don't have children. I ALWAYS have to ask to sit somewhere pleasant; and then they sort of punish you afterwards.

Unknown said...

Wow! You should seriously consider a different career.

Anonymous said...

As a hostess, I'm not trying to piss you off by seating you in a "bad area" we often ask guests if they're okay with sitting next to a loud party or during football season, in an area with an awkward TV angle. I'm trying to get you a table, so you can eat food, which I thought was the point of going to a restaurant. I don't spend my time sitting in all the tables in the joint to determine the best one. You have no clue how much it screws over the servers when we have picky people who need a goldilocks table (just right). If you're that picky about where you sit, eat at home.

-Hostess with the Mostess

Gary Zimmer said...

Hostess with the Mostess:
I fully understand why your post was 'anonymous'. I would pay to avoid a hostess of your ilk. Also, if I were your employer and could identify you, I would do all that I could to prevent your special kind of venom from working in customer service. You write as if you are miserable and want to share your misery...may you receive the parallel of what you provide!

AndyPanda said...

I am Asian and I recently went to lunch at a popular old fashion restaurant with a white co-worker. I asked for a table for two. The black waitress told us to the table outside the kitchen. There were other tables in the area. My psychologist friend once jokingly suggested that one should announce himself as Dr. whatever and then ask for a table for two or three "doctors!"