Bad table

We had been travelling for two days, and none of us were sure when we had eaten last. We trudged through the rain-swept streets, water slowly soaking through our backpacks and outer layers. Everything in Kenmare appeared to be closed, and we approached one pub after another only to discover that it, too, had closed up early. Apparently the warning from the host of our bed and breakfast was true.

Finally, lights loomed out of the growing darkness and we staggered into a densely packed pub and stood, dripping, in the hallway. The barmaid appeared, looking harried, and told us that she only had one table left, jammed in next to the radiator, and one of us would have to sit on a vegetable crate. (Oh, and could we leave the packs in the back of the kitchen so no one tripped on them?) We agreed to the terms of service and found ourselves ushered to a low table tucked in a corner of the room, radiator merrily chugging away. N was barely able to fold his body into the space, and I, being smallest, ended up on the crate. When the food arrived, not all the plates would fit on the table, so I ate off the radiator, my food kept nice and toasty for me. It was the first time in days we were able to relax, and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, the heater warming me from the core, the garrulous talk of the pub washing over us.

Afterwards, we felt confident and ready for anything, energized by the food and kindness of our hosts (one of whom generously agreed to drive us several miles out of his way “so that we didn’t melt away into nothing on the way to old Nellie’s.”)

Did we get a bad table?

Michael Bauer has an entry up talking about “bad” tables and questioning the logic of restaurant seating, and reading it, I felt this memory flood back to me. I’ve eaten in all sorts of strange places, from all sorts of plates, with silverware in varying degrees of cleanliness. I’ve eaten at the Bali Hai with sweeping views of Hanalei Bay, and I’ve been crammed into the corner of a crowded dim sum restaurant where the waiter almost sears my elbow every time he rushes by with a hot pot and I can hear the kitchen gabbling in Mandarin. And yet, only once in my history of eating have I been driven to ask for a different table.

It’s entertaining to read the comments, in particular, because I see writers ranging the board from Bay Area restauranteurs to diners. I always like following the comment threads on Bauer’s posts about service, often because some of the writers appear to be so misguided. Rather than joining the debate there, I’m articulating my thoughts here, because they quickly grew long.

The first thing I take issue with is the idea of a “bad” table. Now, perhaps I’m unsophisticated–I did grow up in a one-horse town. But in my opinion (and Haddock’s as well): “the food tastes the same at all of them.” I eat out to eat delicious food, not to demonstrate my status by getting a coveted table. I’ve never met a table I didn’t like, as long as there’s food on it at some point. My definition of a “bad” table is one missing legs (and yet once I found myself in Corfu holding up the corner of the table with my knee while nibbling on dolmades).

I am aware that some venues are very small, and probably not very well designed. As a result, tables may not be arranged in the best way for diners and servers alike. This is something which should be addressed, to be certain, but the majority of restaurants really aren’t entering into a conspiracy to create “bad” tables which customers will consistently reject. Most dining establishments are conscious that diners are looking for a positive experience from start to finish, and that includes pleasant seating.

To begin with, as many commenters mentioned, different people have different ideas about what they want in a restaurant. As I stated above, I’m peaceable wherever I am seated. But some people favour the view outside, some like to watch the kitchen, some like to be seen. Others might want to sit close to the entrance to keep an eye on friends who are joining them. It seems a bit preposterous to me to categorically declare a table “bad,” when it’s probably ideally suited to someone’s needs.

For example, numerous commenters complained about being seated next to the restroom. I know a number of pregnant women who would be delighted to sit close to the restrooms. Some diners might complain about being seated next to the kitchen–others love watching the kitchen staff at work. It’s difficult for a restaurant when someone requests a “nice” table, because this is an idea which is so subjective.

I suspect that much of this business over “good” tables is artificially created. I’m tempted to engage in some field research, touting the charms of, for example, Table 17, declaring it “the only place to dine,” and seeing how long it takes for it to become the most sought after hot spot in my local eatery. And really, once you’ve eaten at 17, you really can’t imagine eating anywhere else. It’s hard to describe, if you’ve been stuck at 18 or God forbid 27–the food actually tastes better. I have a theory that it’s fresher, since there is such a direct route from the kitchen. Not only that, but the view–incomparable. Promise me you’ll try it.

Restaurant seating might not appear completely logical to the average diner, but there are a lot of thoughts going through the head of the host when you’re seated. Most restaurants, for example, have multiple waiters staffing the floor and they try to be conscientious about rotation. Not only do you get bad service when your server is overseated, but the other waiters get shafted. Do you want the table with the ocean view where you wait for half an hour before you get your menus, or would you rather have a small, intimate table in the corner of the dining room with an attentive waiter? I thought it humorous that many commenters said things along the lines of “restaurants are here to serve customers, not staff,” in response to this issue. Proper rotation isn’t just in place to serve the staff–it’s also in place to ensure that you get the best service possible. (And no, it is not reasonably to change the section assignments around–each waiter works a specific section for a reason, and shouldn’t have to run all over the dining room to care for their tables.)

Furthermore, staff try to be aware of incoming tables later. They don’t want to lock up chunks of the dining room which may impede smooth seating and service later in the evening, and therefore may seat you at a table in an “odd” place. The host is attempting to ensure the best experience possible for you, as well as all the other diners, and therefore needs to be aware of general dining room flow.

There are cases in which I suspect requesting a move is reasonable. If, for example, you are seated next to a loud or obnoxious table, as happened to me once. I politely asked my server if it was possible to be moved and she instantly accomodated. (I defy anyone to sit through dinner next to four tables of old people manically ringing bells and changing seats.) For those who are in wheelchairs or have other physical issues, it seems entirely logical to request a seat which accomodates this. (Although it’s nice to call ahead and warn the staff to ensure that they can save a table for you.) If you want to ensure a particular region of the dining room, you would be well advised to come at off hours and to mention it when you make a reservation.

But why request a move just becuase you “sat at that table already once before,” or “don’t like the wallpaper”? Good lord, people. Just chill. Deal with it. Relax and enjoy the food, because that’s what it’s all about.

Perhaps my fundamental issue with this debate is that for me, eating out is not about status. It’s not about getting the “best” table at the French Laundry, or having the chef come to my table with an amuse bouche. I don’t need to impress anyone with my dining–I eat alone too frequently for that to be a big issue. For me, it’s about eating delicious food prepared by excellent people in a convivial environment, about being part of a family. I sit with joyous anticipation wherever the host thinks is best, because I know, in my heart, that I’ve just been taken to the best table–for me, for the night, for the moment, for the food. And maybe next week, the table will be completely different–and that one will be the best, too.

[bad table]