I met my mother for lunch recently at a restaurant in town. We don’t eat there often, maybe once or twice a year. It was the Friday just before Christmas, and town was bustling. Mom was waiting in the foyer when I arrived at a few minutes before noon.
Have you checked in with the hostess? I asked.
No, not yet, she said. I guess we should have made a reservation. She’d been listening to the hostess chatter with arriving customers. I took matters into hand.
Hi, I said, approaching the hostess station. Can you take two for lunch?
Do you have a reservation? she asked.
No, I’m afraid we don’t, I said. Can you fit us in?
Well, she stiffened, we do have some reservations on the books. But I think we might have room for two.
Great! I said, and we followed her into the nearly empty dining room. But she stopped abruptly and placed our menus at a two-top by the entrance, a small table sandwiched up against a chimney, with a doorway just behind it.
Any chance we might sit at the window? I asked, gesturing to one of the vacant deuces across the room.
No, that table’s reserved, she said.
Okay, I understand, I said, as we took our seats. It must be especially busy over the holidays, I thought, expecting the lunchtime hordes to descend at any minute.
Our waitress greeted us, then served us our tea. We ordered, our food arrived. A few other parties trickled into main dining room, though some were guided to an adjacent dining area where the sun was streaming in. A small party was wrapping up a private celebration in a room nearby. I heard the hostess asking guests as they arrived about their reservations, and the repeated might-have-room refrain.
Twelve-thirty. By now the place was about half full, with four other parties in the main dining room and perhaps six or eight elsewhere.
Twelve-fifty. Our plates were cleared. We ordered more tea, plus dessert. We ate and talked and finished our meal. One-fifteen. We asked for our tab. The place was clearing out.
Did you see what happened here? I asked my mother, nodding toward the empty table by the window, the one I’d requested when we arrived.
No, she said. What happened?
That table stood empty throughout service.
I hadn’t noticed, she said. She genuinely hadn’t.
That table wasn’t reserved, I said. That’s not why they wouldn’t seat us there.
Her face was a question.
They did probably 20 or 25 covers for lunch, and their capacity is about 60, I said, scanning around. So even if every other person who ate here today had made a reservation, the hostess knew she wouldn’t have trouble “fitting us in.”
Mom was listening intently. This seemed to be a new way of thinking about restaurant service.
It’s actually rare in a restaurant for a specific table to be reserved at lunch, I continued. But it’s not unheard of, so it was a believable line. This place doesn’t require reservations, though they clearly prefer them. Reservations are easier on the staff, easier on the kitchen. They make it easier to plan. But walk-ins are common at lunch, and so the kitchen and staff generally know they have to stay flexible.
So, she asked hesitantly, why wouldn’t they give us that table?
Or any other, I wondered aloud. There were plenty of nice tables that stood empty all service, and yet they seated us at the worst table in the house, I said, pointing to the blank space where my plate had been. I paused, thinking it through.
Two reasons, I said finally. First, we arrived early, and they wanted to keep that table open for someone more important than us, someone they recognized, someone who dines here a lot but who showed up without a reservation. But second—and far less charitably: to punish us. By not making a reservation, we’d violated an unspoken rule—a staff rule not a customer rule—that valorizes reservations. She put us here to shame us, to teach us a lesson: call ahead.
Mom looked stricken. I tried to soften my tone.
The food was great! I conceded. Our server was fine. I could be making something out of nothing. Most people probably wouldn’t notice such treatment, or care. It’s a tic of mine, this noticing. I’m sorry.
We paid and got up to leave, pushing in our chairs and collecting our coats in the foyer. The staff smiled and waved us Happy Holidays! as we said our thanks and goodbyes.
Goodbye, I thought to myself, stepping into the light, goodbye, and happy holidays. But don’t think I didn’t notice.