What to Do When You're Running Late for a Restaurant Reservation

Whether you're the one having a panic attack trying to get there, the one twiddling your thumbs at the bar, or the frustrated host at the stand, there's a solution.

The Unbearable Weight of Being Late

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Lured in by images of rosy glistening slices of duck fanned out over artisanal soba noodles and shrimp tempura fried so enticingly that its batter appears to float, my husband and I hovered outside of Abri Soba on a recent night in Paris. No reservations needed, only patience. We slipped, grateful, into two seats at the bar a few minutes after they opened. The rest of the modest dining room was almost full. A line formed out the door, dozens deep.

There was an empty seat next to me. A woman sitting two places over was holding it for her absent companion. She lingered over the menu, hesitating to order.  As my husband and I delved into a bamboo tray of utterly perfect roasted fish, their tiny bellies bursting open with their own caviar, hot and cold bowls of soba, and that ethereal tempura, the seat remained empty. The woman ordered a beer. She fidgeted with the laminated menu. We felt her agony.

Was she being stood up? What force compelled her to wait and order nothing? What self-control must she possess as everyone slurped soba noodles around her? At what point would she leave or order something? Was her date dead? If not, would she murder them upon arrival?

As a chef and former restaurateur, witnessing the scene set off my anxiety. Did that woman understand the repercussions of holding the seat for the restaurant? Could she calculate the loss of soba sales? 

I set out to map the emotions of late diners, stranded diners, and how restaurants deal with lateness, in this new era of pre-paid reservations, more limited dining slots and rarely posted phone numbers (meaning you can’t call the restaurant to tell them you’re on the way). In the hospitality industry, how many minutes must pass before one becomes inhospitable? What actually happens when someone is late?

What to Do If You Are the Person Who Is Running Late

Sitting down for enchiladas with my friends Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a cookbook author and owner of the Gefilteria, and food photographer Clay Williams, I paint them the soba scenario and ask them what they would do in the waiting woman’s shoes.

“If you’re meeting a date, you don’t get started. That would be rude. Maybe have a glass of wine. If it’s a friend, order something," advises Yoskowitz. "But what does the restaurant do? There are all these undiscussed awkward moments and decision points you forget about every day, after every service.”

His feelings come from a place of empathy for the restaurant, “Going to a restaurant is similar to meeting a friend. I want to communicate as best I can and make sure they’re not inconvenienced. If I were the late one, I’d feel guilt and shame.”

“And hunger,” adds Williams. The nightmare intensifies, “I just dined somewhere booked through Resy that put a $30 hold on my card and if you don’t show up, they charge you. I understand the fine, but what if you’re in a car accident?” 

As a diner, embraced by warm food and flowing wine, it’s easy to forget that people eat after you. Unless it’s all you can think about.

Photographer Casey Robinson had saved up for and booked a tasting menu in New York for her then-boyfriend’s birthday. Despite the planning, the couple didn’t factor in the amount of traffic, and were 20 minutes late. "“I remember the sheer panic and thinking ‘I’m going to totally ruin this dinner.’ We deserved to lose that reservation,” she confesses. When she was asked to wait another 10 minutes upon arrival, there was enormous relief. “Everything ended up being OK.”

But looking back, she remembers the panic more than what she ate. "We were sweating, saying, we definitely want a glass of wine and thinking will wine really fix this? The stress and panic take away from the experience you’re about to have.”

Robinson’s dread is justified in a tasting menu scenario, says chef-owner Randy Rucker of Philadelphia’s River Twice. “When a guest is late, even by 10 minutes, it complicates things. It is extremely difficult with designated timed seating, such as our chef’s counter. We can’t begin the meal until all guests are seated. We have ways to catch up and get back on time, but it certainly affects every guest’s experience that evening."

"I assure you we do not forget those who are tardy,” he continues. “Don’t be late and if you are, be honest as to the actual time you can be expected.”

What to Do If You Are Waiting for Someone at the Restaurant

Ivy Lerner-Frank, a former diplomat and food writer, was once ghosted by a former colleague whose entire family she had invited to dinner. She was ready, her kids were hungry, and eventually, she called the offending party to see if he was coming,

"He said, ‘Oh chère Ivy, I completely forgot. The kids had blah blah blah activity and it just slipped my mind.’ Clearly it hadn’t been as important to him as it was to us,” says Frank. “Annoyed is too mild a word for that situation." 

Fear, too, because she didn't want to face the possibility that she was being stood up. "Somehow, I felt I was the one who lost face, for caring. Not him.” There was lasting damage, and Lerner-Frank says she felt that forever afterward, she was skeptical of that person’s sincerity and ability to really do their job.

Even when lateness isn’t indicative of someone’s character, it leaves the waiting party in an awkward situation. Once Robinson was waiting for friends who were stuck in traffic, and they ended up turning around. She stayed and enjoyed her time alone. "It’s about being forgiving in those moments, and I’ll make the best of it,” she says. “I don’t extend the amount of time allotted to my reservation. I know how hard that can be on a restaurant. But order something, even if you take it to go.”

What the Restaurant Can Do About Late Customers

“There’s a sadness to it. There’s frustration, but it’s not at the customer, it’s at the situation. What brings us the most joy is when we’re able to serve people,” says Ted Golden, restaurant consultant and partner at Atlanta’s Hayakawa. He explains that 60% of his customers are new to omakase and they may not understand that once the kitchen starts preparing the food — for instance eight pieces of nigiri — they're all done at once. 

“Guests don’t see the turn beyond them. We respect all our guests, but if they’re 15 minutes late, we’re not going to make anyone else wait, which mitigates the resentment that might bubble up in other customers,” he explains. Late customers forfeit the courses they miss at Hayakawa.

There are certainly solutions – many honed by pandemic struggles – that relieve losses due to tardiness for restaurants and manage the expectations of guests. Restaurant tech has come leaps and bounds recently, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “For newer, younger restaurants – that can be hard to figure out,” says Yoskowitz. 

Restaurant groups with greater resources and more tourists than locals, like Banff Hospitality Collective, rely on a complex ecosystem of staggered reservation times, seating strategies, and digital waitlists, but be prepared to lose your table. 

Michael Mendelman, BHC’s CEO, tells me that the group services up to 7,750 guests a day in their peak season, and that the pandemic transformed their business into a reservations-based one because they can really control the efficiency of the restaurants. “We give guests 15 minutes after their reservation time to be in their seats. Many factors can influence the stickiness of this general rule. If you have missed your reservation by more than 30 minutes without notification, I would say you’re on thin ice," says Mendelman. 

Tardy guests are handled as the night permits. "You want to make their night as smooth as possible, however their tardiness cannot impact other guests," he says. "We try to accommodate the original reservations or offer arrangements at one of our other restaurants if the property is full.”

Tiffany’s, a longtime hotspot on Maui now under the ownership of Sheldon and Janice Simeon, doesn't take reservations. On Maui, restaurants can be booked up months in advance by visitors and Tiffany’s new team did not want to alienate its devoted local clientele. “Yelp Waitlist is similar to walking into a restaurant, waiting for a table by putting your name down on their notepad and waiting for your name to be called. But you can do it before you head down,” says lead host Brendan M Smith. 

“We’re a Hawaiian-style Cheers. If you live here, you're almost certainly going to run into someone you know. That's what makes this restaurant so special. You can't manufacture that vibe," says Smith. When the discussion of reservations came up, the restaurant had to take that feeling into account. "Nothing would ruin that more than pulling up to Tiffany's, after a long day of craving a cold cocktail and a hot dish, only to be told, 'Sorry, we're booked up for this evening.' Tiffany's is a restaurant for everyone.” Both Tiffany’s and Banff Hospitality Collective systems efficiently fill seats and prevent lost revenue. They’re preventative measures, to make sure at the end of the day, everything will be OK.

Back in Paris, it turned out that the woman at Abri Soba was meeting her mother, who showed up after an hour and fifteen minutes, clearly flustered. Around me, there was a collective sigh of relief. 

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