Why Restaurants Do the Things They Do

Why. We spend much more time on “Who?” or “How?” than “Why?”. In reality, asking, “Why?” can lead to the greatest revelations and reduce the most stress. When you understand why something is done, you can then accept and move on or enact change. “Why?” is a decision-forcing question, not a fact-finding question. You know why no one likes a government fact finding commission? Because they don’t DO anything. “Why?” forces action.

No doubt, over this past weekend, many of you ventured out for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. For my fellow Northeasterners, you deserve extra points for braving the sub-freezing temperatures. Having worked in the industry for years, I can take a guess at your experiences. The wait was longer than normal, the restaurant was overcrowded, extra tables may have been wedged in. I bet a few of you saw an incredibly embarrassing engagement. (I remember one guest who actually hired a full barbershop quartet to serenade his lady while he proposed. Her embarrassment was probably the most unromantic thing in the restaurant that night.) I would also to be willing to bet that more than a few of you walked away from dinner upset with the restaurant and wondering who to blame and where to direct your anger.

So let’s take a look at a few of the things restaurants do, and see if I can explain why.

Only Seat Full Parties

Restaurants have a special flow to them. When things are going right. When things are going wrong, all hell is breaking loose. But there are those nights when everything is clicking. The serving spoons are re-stocked. Everyone uses the right position numbers. Seating is staggered perfectly. Restaurant workers pray every pre-shift meeting for one of those nights.

Seating an incomplete party is a sure way to throw one of those nights off track. The first people to sit get their drinks and wait. When their dinner companions arrive, the new guests are ready for a drink, while the original guests are ready for their appetizers, which, of course, they haven’t ordered yet. At this point, the dinner is already too far gone to salvage. Half the guests are wondering why their server is rushing them, while the other half is upset that their server is taking too long. And all their server is actually trying to do is get the whole table on the same page.

Restaurants like to seat complete parties because it makes YOUR dining experience better. And when your dining experience is better, you order more, tip more, and dine there more often.

Additionally, a half-full table is a non-revenue-generating table. There is probably another complete party ready to sit. That party would have their orders in and a check running before the rest of your guests arrived. It makes more financial sense for the restaurant to ask you to grab a drink while you wait for your friends, seating another party instead. If a restaurant manager can optimize their dining room performance, while, at the same time, improving the quality of your meal, they’re going to choose that every time.

Have a Waitlist

One of the most common questions I was asked while working the door (seating the restaurant) was, “Why do I have to wait if I have a reservation?” The answer I most often gave, and an honest answer at that, was that we seat the restaurant staggered to control the flow of orders into the kitchen. Fifty steaks hitting the broiler at once could drop the temperature inside the broiler, affecting the cooking of all those steaks. And there are only enough stove tops to handle a certain number of sides at once. Of course there were two other reasons that I would never give. First, we probably took a few too many walkins to start the night. Just enough to get us behind by about twenty to thirty minutes. And, second, I wanted people to grab a drink in the bar. A full bar is a sign of a popular restaurant, and going on a short wait helped create that image.


Honestly, restaurants don’t overbook. Most reservation books are charted out using the number of tables in the restaurant and a time per table depending on how long a table that size “should” take for dinner. In the steakhouse I ran, we used an estimate of one and a half hours for a party of two, two hours for a party of four, and two and a half hours for anything larger. But dinner parties don’t always follow the rules, and different tables take longer or shorter than expectations. Seating a restaurant is not an exact science, and it almost never goes according to the reservation book. But “the book” (computerized these days) is still the best option available.

Have an Expensive Wine List

A large portion of a restaurant’s profit can be found behind the bar. Alcohol usually has the highest mark-up in any restaurant, and this includes wine list. (Although the cocktails are probably even higher than the wine) Restaurant owners know they have you pinned down when it comes to drinks, and they charge accordingly. However, consider a few things you’re paying for with your bottle that you might not realize. Someone has to create, stock, and manage the wine inventory. Wine should be stored in a climate controlled room or cellar; how expensive would it be to keep your house house at a brisk fifty degrees or so? You’re also paying for someone to open and pour that bottle for you. Sure it might seem trivial, but being waited on is part of the dining out experience. Food (and drink) taste better when someone else cooks for you.

Serve Weak Drinks

Most restaurants don’t mix and serve weak drinks; you just make strong drinks at home. In order to maintain a liquor license, restaurants are required to follow their state liquor laws, which include pour measurements. The most common measurements are a six-ounce pour for wine and one and a half ounces for liquor. If you’ve ever seen a bartender using a jigger (that funny two-sided cup), they’re just following the law, not trying to cheat you out of your booze. Most drinks taste weak because the legal pour is diluted with more mixer than what you use for yourself. If you want a stiff drink, order a whiskey neat or a martini.

Not Allow Substitutions

Good kitchens are well-oiled machines. They have to be to crank out several hundred dinners a night. Read Kitchen Confidential to get an idea of the difference between a kitchen running on all cylinders and a dysfunctional one. Anthony Bourdain’s life is a series of travels between the two. The guys working behind the line are able to keep those dinners coming because of repetition. Special orders break that repetition. They may be able to manage your request, but it’s probably going to slow the kitchen down, and it’s probably not going to be exactly what you envisioned. Additionally, a chef, someone who has studied food for a living, has put those foods on the menu together for a reason. Take a step back, consider that that chef might be onto something, and step outside your comfort zone. It could prove enjoyable. However, if you know you don’t care for something, have a food allergy, or just aren’t in an adventurous mood, the restaurant should still be accommodating.

Most decisions made by a restaurant’s management are done with their guests in mind. A good management team knows that happy guests mean returning guests, and returning guests mean the restaurant can continue. However, making guests happy is not about doing whatever they want, it’s about fulfilling expectations. In many cases they restaurant is more knowledgeable about what it takes to deliver an enjoyable dining experience than you are, and sometimes that means saying “No.” So the next time a restaurant employee politely tells you “No”, it may actually be because they want you to have a better time than you realize. If that still doesn’t sit right with you, ask them “Why?” Their answer to “Why?” should force you to act. Will you come again or dine elsewhere?


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