What Every Restaurant Hostess Wishes You Knew

We greet you, we seat you, we wash down your menus at the end of the night, and we do it all with a smile. Sometimes.

How much do you really know about a shift in the life of a restaurant host or hostess? The people who seemingly decide how long you will wait for your table on a Saturday night. The folks who manage that elusive book of reservations. How exactly do you get that table with the ocean view? Here are a few clues from a restaurant veteran with over 15 years in the service industry. 

We don't decide closing time

Once the kitchen has started to shut down the equipment and put away the food, that's a wrap folks. No amount of cajoling or begging or threatening to call the owner is going to score you a seat in a dining room that's already closed. I once had to deliver this news to a major Broadway legend who was none too pleased that she and her party couldn't have a table in the dining room when they arrived a few minutes past closing. The chairs were already up on the tables and the busboy was vacuuming, yet someone from her party still called the restaurant the next day to complain about it. But you know what? The manager had our back. When we're closed, we're closed.

We need to stagger the way we seat tables

Place back to back tables in a particular server's section, and you risk their ire for not only the rest of the shift, but probably the rest of the week. What may seem to you as a simple walk and drop of the menus to the table of your choice is to us a carefully orchestrated plan that requires a certain rhythm to play out correctly. We know servers need the proper amount of time to greet each table, get drink orders, and recite specials, and we certainly aren't helping them get that done when we seat two or more tables in a row in their section. If you still insist on getting that particular table, be understanding when we say that your server may take a moment to get to you, or when your drink order is not taken within a minute of your being seated.

And that large swatch of restaurant that has no customers? That section is closed. If it's early, the servers scheduled in that section haven't begun their shifts yet. If it's late, that section has been washed down and the servers have been sent home. Still insisting on sitting there makes you a jerk.

Large parties can throw off the entire restaurant

Showing up unexpectedly with a party of 12 is not just a matter of a restaurant having the room for you. Large tables require a huge amount of attention from not only your server, but also the kitchen crew, who can possibly get backed up as they try to time your food appropriately without holding up the food of other tables. If it seems like it's taking us too long to put some tables together for you, keep in mind that we are likely discussing your table with management, servers, and the kitchen, to make sure they know that you are here, and that we are prepared to handle your needs. Next time? Call first. Even ten minutes heads up can make a huge difference.

It screws us up when you're late or a no-show

C'mon people... how hard is it really to give a restaurant a quick call and let them know you won't be able to honor your reservation? Even a call to let us know you're running a few minutes behind schedule prepares us for how to accommodate you when you do arrive. You should also call us if the number in your party has changed. It's not always possible to add a chair or two to an already cramped table on a busy night.

Restaurants typically leave your reserved table open for 15 minutes after your scheduled reservation. If you don't come at all, that's 15 minutes the establishment and employees were unable to make money off of that valuable little four-top of real estate, plus the time it sat open beforehand awaiting your arrival. If you know you can't be there, do the decent thing, and open that table up for a lucky walk-in. If you're using a reservation system like Open Table, four no-shows in a year gets you kicked off the site. And does the restaurant take notice of which names and numbers are no-shows? You bet we do.

The truth about Open Table

We get it, it is super convenient to make a reservation online 24/7, and to avoid the drudgery of actually speaking to a living human being on the other end of a phone. But Open Table is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to restaurant availability. Restaurants rarely divulge all of their available tables to the Open Table system, because Open Table charges restaurants a buck per reservation made and honored through the system. That can really add up on a busy weekend night. If the restaurant knows they'll do OK without the service, there will be better availability by just calling in for a reservation. So go ahead, pick up the phone. We promise we won't bite.

Only the manager can move you up the list

My first hostessing gig was at an uber-popular Mexican restaurant on the Jersey Shore. And yes, Jon Bon Jovi was a regular. The wait on a Saturday night could easily be two hours long. Of course, not everyone wanted to spend two hours downing jumbo Texas margaritas at the bar, so some folks would inevitably try to slip me a $10 or $20 bill to move their name to the top of the list. I was making about $5 an hour, so believe me, it was tempting, but I knew I couldn't do it. Not only would other customers likely spot the greasing of the palm, but the boss/owner was on top of every little move that happened in that place. Now, could she move you up the list? Of course she could, but you were getting that treatment by being a loyal regular, not with a twenty.

 So what could I do for you? It wasn't exactly policy, but if you had taken the time to learn my name, and called earlier on the phone, I might just be able to put your name on the list while you are still on your way over. But you didn't hear that from me.

Those tables are empty for a reason

Even having a reservation does not guarantee you the pick of any plum open table you see. By all means, go ahead and inquire about it, but if we say it's reserved, that means it's reserved. You wouldn't want me giving away the table you had reserved to another party, would you? This especially goes out to all you fine folks who want a four-top table when you only have a party of two. If you really want that larger table so badly, go make yourself some new friends at the bar and ask them to join you.

 Oh, and if we DO manage to upgrade you to that table with a view? A tip showing your gratitude would be perfectly acceptable.

We cannot fetch you a drink

There are two types of staff members who are officially able to order something for you — the bartenders, and the servers. If you haven't seen your server in a while, sure, I will rustle him up for you, but please don't try to get me to also bring you a couple of beers or some dipping sauce for your fried calamari. I'm unable to add anything to your check, so the most I'll be doing is communicating to your server what it is you want, when what I really need to be doing is going back to the host stand to talk to the guests who are waiting for tables. The same goes for complaints about your food — that's the server's, or the manager's domain. Thrusting an overcooked plate of filet mignon into my hands is not going to speed things along, it is just going to confuse things. Please, just let me get your server for you.

Wait times are not a precise science

We plan on each party taking about two hours to complete their meal, meaning that's when we count on "turning the table over." If tables are finishing up faster than that, and the table isn't reserved, you'll see that waiting list moving faster than the time we quoted you. Everyone's happy then, right?

 But what about the nights when people are lingering over coffee for longer than the time we would normally account for? No, we won't kick them out, just the same way we wouldn't kick you out if you did the same. What will happen is you'll end up waiting longer for tables... and it isn't our fault. Complaining incessantly, or asking more than once where you are on the list is not going to make things move faster. What's wrong, you have cranky kids with you? Then I suggest you make a reservation next time, or hit the drive-thru before you head over.

No, we won't watch your kids

Your kids wandering aimlessly around a busy restaurant are seriously the bane of every restaurant worker's existence. What happens when a tray of martinis falls on your 6 year old's head? Sending them to the lobby or waiting area is not any better. It impedes traffic coming in and out of the front door, and it also likely means your child is not within your eyesight, making them easy to grab and snatch by any child-napping villain lurking in the corners. When you send your kids to treat the waiting area like a playground, I have to assume you're imagining I am going to keep an eye on them. But my obligation to your children began and ended with that four-pack of cheap crayons I gave them when I sat you. Next time you want to relax over cocktails like you used to in your pre-parenting days, either keep them at the table with an iPad, or hire a babysitter for the night.