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The Server Files: Camping Is Best Left Outdoors

By Staff in Food on Feb 1, 2013 5:20PM

2013_2_1_Waiter.jpg The Server Files is a new series that takes us outside the kitchen and into the dining room. It will explore issues related to service, customers, and all the crazy things people do when they eat in restaurants.

Have you ever found yourself the only couple left in a large restaurant, staring dreamily into each other's eyes, whispering soft nothings and then, all of the sudden, some waiter comes up and ruins the mood by requesting that you settle your bill? We've all overstayed our welcome in more than a few restaurants and bars (not to mention friends' houses), but what's the big deal anyway? Aren't we paying for the right to enjoy ourselves in this fine dining establishment?

I have to be honest: it's really hard, even for me, a restaurant professional, to be on the receiving end of a polite request to vacate a table. It just seems awfully presumptuous of a restaurant to ask a paying customer to give up the seats I rightfully paid for.

This is a bigger problem than you might imagine. At small restaurants, particularly in high-rent urban areas, you are essentially buying a certain amount of time at a table with your bill. Sure, a fine dining establishment with astronomical prices can afford to lose a turn on a table to squatters, and large restaurants with more than enough tables don't fret so much over it. But for most independent, small businesses, your lingering might just be hurting the place you so love to frequent by minimizing the sales they can achieve during their peak hours. Your twenty minutes of stalling past the time you signed your bill might be pissing off a new customer who has been waiting for twenty minutes past their reservation time.

If you decide that you are going to stretch out your "dinner" into the wee hours of the night, long after the burners have been extinguished in the kitchen and the busboys are sweeping around your feet, you are what is contemptuously referred to in the industry as a camper. To campers, the restaurant experience is no suburban chow fest designed merely to feed hungry bellies. In their minds they are in rural France enjoying a three-hour lunch; or they are sitting in a Roman café practicing the art of dialectic with their brainy compatriots, the food and beverages only props in their mis-en-scène; or yes, they are you, that couple lingering for hours over glasses of wine that neither is touching after every other patron has long left the premises. Because restaurants are really just there for your romantic backdrop. It's not like the business is trying to succeed in the brutally competitive industry that is food service. Managers and cooks and service staff don't have families who mind them coming home after midnight, right?

Even if you were to order another coffee or after-dinner drink, the marginal addition to the night's take would be so small that the restaurant would rather close than have your money. Of course, they would never say this up front, but this is why things like a "last call" for drinks exists, and why servers will often rush the final tables that come in to eat ten minutes before the kitchen closes. It seems rude, but it's more about the inconvenience of there only being twenty-four hours in a day and something called regular business hours.

I'm not saying you should be a crazy person about rushing your dining experience, but be aware of your surroundings. If it looks like you're keeping the restaurant from seating new guests, pay your bill and consider moving to the bar (or another bar down the street). If you are the last people in an empty restaurant, don't wait until the managers ask you to leave. They've probably been wanting you to go for a good thirty minutes before even approaching you. Ask them for a recommended nearby lounge, and be nice to them as you exit. They're probably tired from being on their feet for eight or more hours, and if you ever plan on coming back, they'll surely remember whether you were polite or rude and factor that into where you get seated and what quality of server you get.

It takes a lot of work to run a great restaurant with amazing food and top notch service, so as a diner, consider when you might be taking advantage of the business' space and time. They want you to come and enjoy yourself, but save the camping for outdoors.