A matter of time Recently, I went to review a Cantonese restaurant in Causeway Bay. Our attempt to reserve a table for 7.30pm had been rebuffed, as the restaurant was fully booked, but we were told we could be seated at 6pm if we agreed to return the table at 8pm.
That was fine with us. We arrived on time and had a good meal served at a reasonable pace. At about 7.45pm, the manager asked if we wanted to order dessert, but also politely reminded us that the diners for the next seating were due to arrive. We paid and left, feeling satisfied.
A thread about this type of scenario was revived on chowhound.com earlier this month (the topic was started in 2010 but people are still replying to it). In "Asking guests to leave for incoming reservations", the replies range from, "It's a restaurant not a campground, eat up and get out!" to, "It is never okay to kick out one table to make room for another reservation."
Diners have given anecdotes.
In one incident, a party of eight, upon arriving for their 6.30pm reservation, were only then informed that they had to give the table back at 8.15pm. It wasn't an inexpensive restaurant - they were paying US$60 per person. There was a long wait between courses, but this didn't stop the manager from asking them to leave when the time came.
Another poster writes that a group of 16 had to wait for two hours after their reservation time because the party ahead of them lingered for so long, while the staff did nothing.
One commenter wants to have his cake and eat it: "When I make a reservation I expect the restaurant to have my table ready within 10 to 20 minutes of the established time. I don't care how they go about it and if there is a delay I attribute that to a management problem without regard for which table has lingered too long.
"Were I asked directly to leave my table, I would be disappointed in my servers' lack of grace and skill. I do not want to wait when I have made a reservation and I do not want to be asked to vacate my table. The restaurateur is meant to manage the business so that I suffer neither of these undesirable fates."
A response to that was, "Must be nice to live on Planet Me."
Many of the replies are more reasonable and take into account cultural differences. In Europe, many traditional restaurants don't have seatings, so the table is yours for the evening (within reason, of course, and not at the inexpensive places). Most fine-dining restaurants agree that you shouldn't be rushed to make way for other diners; even if there are seatings, the pace should be leisurely.
Restaurants are constantly refining the way they turn tables. They know that couples tend to eat quickly while larger groups need more time; that loud music and uncomfortable chairs deter people from lingering; and that there are exceptions to every rule. Most places stagger seatings so there isn't a sudden influx at the most popular time slots, which makes it easier on the cooks and wait staff.
I much prefer restaurants that have seatings to places that don't take reservations at all, meaning you have to stand around and wait, not knowing when the diners ahead of you will finish.
I believe you should be told when you make your booking if the restaurant needs the table back at a certain time; you shouldn't find this out when you're sitting down. This way, if you don't like the amount of time you're given, you can choose to eat elsewhere. And if you're lingering longer than you should be, you should expect to be moved along tactfully.
Restaurants everywhere operate on slim margins, and in Hong Kong, the situation is exacerbated by the sky-high rents. Diners need to be considerate of a restaurateur's need to generate income, which they won't be doing if you're sitting at a table ordering nothing, long after you've finished eating.
Restaurateurs need to allow diners enough time to enjoy their meal and serve the food at a good pace without making anyone feel rushed. If both sides are considerate and reasonable, nobody will be left feeling resentful.