Restaurant wait brings whining, little dining

The Baltimore Sun

Here is Cowherd's No. 1 Rule on Dining Out: Never wait more than 15 minutes for a table, because the meal will rarely be worth it.

Unfortunately, I violated this important rule on a recent weekend when my wife and I waited 45 minutes to be seated at a new chain restaurant.

Chain restaurants, for the most part, don't take reservations, apparently preferring to have hordes of hungry, sullen people milling about the entrance and glaring at the customers already enjoying their dinners.

Some restaurants give you these gizmos that light up or make a buzzing sound when it's your turn to be seated.

And it does send a little frisson of joy through you when the thing goes off. They didn't forget about us! People get so excited, you'd think they won the lottery.

But this was not one of those restaurants.

This was the sort of restaurant where you elbow your way through the crowd to the unsmiling young staffer who is that evening's Keeper of the List.

"How long's the wait?" you ask.

"Thirty minutes," she barks. "Name?"

Then you slink off to a bench in the foyer and hope you hear your name over the din when it's called.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that the Keeper of the List often delights in the sense of power he or she has.

This young woman was no exception, and she swaggered through the crowd, tapping her clipboard against her thigh like an old-time cop tapping his nightstick.

People who were waiting for a table kept trying to schmooze her in the hopes of snagging a table sooner.

But schmoozing didn't work with this gal. You had a better chance of schmoozing a death-row executioner. She was all business and cut off all attempts at banter with a brusque: "I'm sorry, we're very busy tonight."

One of those schmoozing weasels even told her that he was there with his 90-year-old grandmother, who was feeling faint because she had a medical condition that required her to eat at precisely designated times.

Hah! I thought. Good luck with that one, pal.

Because even if Granny hit the deck and started gasping for air, the Keeper of the List wasn't going to bat an eyelash.

She was as remote as Cindy McCain at a campaign rally.

There could have been customers keeling over every five seconds and she would have just kept stepping over the bodies and shouting: "Jones, party of four! Last call for Jones, party of four!"

I always feel sorry for the little kids who are waiting with their parents for a table, because these little kids are tired and hungry.

And worst of all, they're too young to drink.

Yes, it always helps if the restaurant you're waiting in has a bar, because alcohol is the only thing that makes the wait tolerable.

Fortunately, there was a bar in this place. So after about 20 minutes, we left the hungry, sullen people in the foyer waiting for a table and joined the hungry, sullen people at the bar waiting for a table.

At the bar, the main topic of conversation was why the wait staff wasn't clearing the tables fast enough after they were vacated.

"Look at that table over there!" said one man. "That's been empty for three or four minutes! And no one's cleared it!"

But I wasn't getting caught up in that nonsense, since I'd ordered my second beer and was now enjoying the warm glow that comes with drinking when you're starving.

Anyway, we waited and waited to be seated. Thirty minutes passed, then 35 minutes and 40 minutes.

At most restaurants, they give you a wait time that's longer than the time in which they actually expect you to be seated.

The theory here is that if they say you'll be waiting 30 minutes and they seat you in 20, you'll be pleasantly surprised and in a good mood to start your meal.

But apparently this restaurant operated on a different theory: They underestimated wait times so their customers would be good and ticked off by the time they were seated.

Finally, though, the Keeper of the List shouted our name.

"Right here, Your Worship!" I called out, waving frantically.

Then I dropped to my knees and murmured, "Thank you! Thank you!" and tried to kiss her hand. And soon we were being led to our table by a very nice woman named Amanda.

The schmoozing weasel glared at us. But Granny was still hanging in there and didn't look wobbly at all, which was good to see.

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