During the course of our work at Serious Eats, we spend a lot of time at restaurants, and we often go out for special occasions, too. We have the chance to see what works and what doesn’t in restaurant service, and often, the difference between a fabulous night out and an uncomfortable evening comes down to the timing.
As a restaurant owner, one of the primary facets of training your staff should be trying to make sure they coordinate the timing so your customers can enjoy each dish without feeling rushed or ignored. A fun night out can mean that restaurant guests return—and become regulars, while a poorly-coordinated evening can result in a customer never coming back.
Timing begins before the meal
It can be hard to forgive a restaurant failing to honor the time of a reservation, so if your dining room is packed and the promised table isn’t free, consider treating your guests to a free drink while they wait. This gracious gesture can make the difference between an annoyed customer and a relaxed one. If there’s nowhere to wait, and the estimated time before a free table is more than 15 minutes, offer to take a guest’s phone number so they can comfortably wait elsewhere until you call.
Once seated, it shouldn’t take long for each table to have menus. If they’ve already been waiting, customers may have already had time to decide what to order—make eye contact early and often, and be sure to give them a chance to wave you over so their evening can begin.
These days, many diners share small plates or order a number of things for the table. This might make it harder on your staff, but it’s also a chance for service to shine—if the timing is right.
Let’s say a couple orders a fritti misti, a salad, a soup and two entrees, and tell the waiter they’ll be sharing. Though the soup, salad and fritti misti are all technically first courses, it’s pretty awkward to have them three arrive at once. If you eat the salad first, the fried food gets soft and the soup gets cold. There are a few other options that would be better. The salad and fritti misti could be shared as a first course, with the soup arriving after (ideally, pre-split in the kitchen so the couple doesn’t have to attempt to eat it from the center of the table, or attempt to pass hot liquid back and forth.) If you’re not sure how to do it, consider asking the guests what they’d prefer.
Once the food is served, the timing of clearing the table must also be considered. If guests aren’t sharing, be sure not to clear any plates on the table before all the guests have had a chance to finish. All too often, one diner is left eating alone while another sits in front of an empty spot on the tablecloth.
If there’s a morsel remaining on a shared plate, let it remain for awhile rather than rushing it off the table—someone might still snag that last bite, and the pressure of a quickly-cleared table can put a damper on the evening.
Guests should be welcome to linger—but they shouldn’t be forced to wait. As soon as the coffee or dessert (if ordered) are cleared, there’s no point in withholding the check. Place it on the table and assure them that there’s no hurry, and that they can stay as long as they like. Your guests can decide how quickly they want to leave. It shouldn’t be a challenge for the guests to get a check—after a long evening, they may simply be ready to go.