I don't think of myself as a punctual person -- I'm constantly pulling into movie theater parking garages just as they start to roll the trailers. So when I meet people at a restaurant for dinner, I'm rarely the first to arrive.
But a couple months ago, I was meeting my mom for dinner at a sushi bar called Hiko in LA's Sawtelle neighborhood, and I happened to beat her there. When I walked in, I found it deserted. Although it was 7 p.m., there were literally no diners in any of the seats. The only other souls in the restaurant were a waitress and a sushi chef. I walked up to the waitress and asked for a table for two. Her expression darkened.
"Has your dining partner arrived yet?" she asked.
"No," I responded warily, "But I was just texting with her and she's only a few minutes away."
"I'm sorry, but we only seat complete parties," she said.
"Even though there's literally no one else here?" I asked, confused.
"It's the policy," she said, clearly embarrassed. She gestured toward a row of stools in the hallway. "Would you mind sitting here while you wait for your companion?"
I did mind. The restaurant was empty! And I just wanted to relax, order a beer and peruse the menu while I waited. I didn't want to perch on some uncomfortable stool in a drafty hallway for who knows how long. But I'd heard that the owner of Hiko was known for strictly enforcing a host of specific rules in his restaurant; he's known for kicking diners out mid-meal. So instead of complaining, I sat down at a stool and waited five minutes, until my mom walked in and we were allowed to sit. Our food, for the record, ended up being superb -- but when I've thought about the meal since that night, I've found myself focusing more on the restaurant's lack of hospitality than its deft handling of blue crab.
This was an extreme example. Few restaurants would refuse to seat an incomplete table if there were literally no one else in the dining room. But it speaks to a troubling trend in the restaurant world: Maitre d's hatred of seating incomplete parties.
Intellectually, I understand why a restaurant wouldn't want to seat someone before the rest of their party arrives. Since a party is unlikely to order food until everyone arrives, seating an incomplete table wastes space that could otherwise go to people who are ready to order. It's an inefficient allocation of limited seating. That's why I'm fine with a very popular restaurant refusing to seat incomplete parties during prime times -- 8 o'clock on Friday night, say, or in the middle of the Sunday brunch rush.
But in my experience, this policy extends far beyond that. It's ubiquitous. Restaurants everywhere insist on only seating complete parties, at all times of day and on all the days of the week. And it's a major turnoff.
After all, the host is the first person you encounter when you walk through a restaurant's doors. When they tell you that you can't sit down, even though there are empty tables, it immediately signals that the restaurant's owners are more interested in maximizing profits than in making their guests feel welcome and comfortable. It can be hard for a restaurant to recover from that foul first impression. Especially since someone who arrives before their dining companions might already feel vulnerable and awkward. Who hasn't been the first one to show up for a date and worried that the other person will stand them up?
Plus, even if diners aren't likely to order their main courses before their companions arrive, they're very likely to start ordering little appetizers to share and, especially, drinks, which are the main profit centers for restaurants in any case. So it's not a total waste. At restaurants with bars, hosts will often encourage early arrivers to wait for the rest of their table at the bar and order a drink in the meantime -- and I'm generally A-OK with that.
But if the bar's full, or the restaurant has no bar, and there are open tables, I really wish hosts would seat incomplete tables. Not if it's just one person in a group of eight, I suppose, and not if the restaurant's slammed. I wouldn't want to replace one kind of rigidity with another. I'm just asking for hosts to be flexible and hospitable rather than blindly obeying ironclad policies.
I witnessed a stellar example of a smart attitude toward incomplete parties a few weeks after my meal at Hiko, when I was meeting a friend for dinner at Ludo Lefebvre's hotspot Petit Trois. I walked in at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday and found it just as empty as Hiko had been. This was more surprising, as it's a tiny restaurant that's attracted a ton of buzz. Most of the time, it's packed; it's the rare LA restaurant that regularly has a wait for a table. So even though I was the only diner there, I felt sure that I would be asked to hover outside until my friend arrived.
But much to my delight, the waitress who greeted me at the door encouraged me to sit right down. She poured me a glass of water and asked if I wanted a cocktail while I waited. My friend soon texted to say that he'd mixed up his schedule, and wouldn't get there for 20 minutes -- but at no point did anyone in the restaurant flinch. Indeed, they were friendly and solicitous even as the restaurant started to fill up a bit and my companion still hadn't arrived.
When he finally showed up, I had worked up an appetite while waiting and drinking, so we ordered a great deal of food and drink, racking up a larger bill than I had intended. But because the restaurant had welcomed me enthusiastically from the minute I walked in, I left eager to return. That's what a good restaurant meal should always do.