How Long is Too Long to Stay in a Restaurant?

Bebe Nicholson

The Restaurant Manager asked us to leave

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My friend and I thought it odd there were no customers in the French Bistro. But the restaurant hadn’t been open long, so maybe that’s why it was empty. Sometimes new places are slow to build a clientele.

A friendly server wanted to make sure we were happy and impressed. “It’s usually more crowded than this,” she explained. “Our hours are from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. and we have a breakfast special that brings in a lot of business people. We attract an upscale crowd.”

My friend, who has a talent for drawing people out and encouraging them to talk, soon discovered our server’s mother taught French lessons.

“Could I have your mother’s business card?” she asked. “I know a group of people who want to take French lessons and they might like to meet in a restaurant.”

Maybe this bistro would be a good meeting location? Maybe the girl’s mother could teach French lessons here during the restaurant’s slow hours?

This sort of thinking is typical of my friend. She connects people with other people and is always on the lookout for new talent and new businesses. She makes friends with servers and hair stylists and the people who do repair work on her house. Before retiring, she ran a successful business connecting people and services to other people.

But you wouldn’t know she had run a successful business to look at her. In her early seventies, she doesn’t wear makeup or high heels. Her hair, a straight bob, hangs just below her ears. She dresses for comfort, with only the occasional piece of jewelry. Her large blue eyes, unenhanced by liner or mascara, are bright with intelligent.

She confided at lunch that she didn’t like the new crop of wrinkles that seemed to have sprung up on her face overnight. But other than asking me if I had any skin care secrets, she didn’t seem overly concerned and we quickly moved on to other subjects.

We were a couple of women past middle age, dressed casually, discussing food, politics, religion, books, and relationships. I love my friend’s willingness to listen and her interest in other people.

We have known each other for years. She’s the sort of person you can talk with nonstop for hours, which is probably the reason a lot of people seek her out for lunch dates.

Our lunch together flew by

We were so absorbed in our conversation that we scarcely noticed when a few other customers trickled in and out. We ate our lunch, then enjoyed coffee. My friend thought of ordering a pastry to take to her husband, who loves desserts.

Suddenly we realized two hours had flown by and the restaurant was empty again. It had never been that full. Only a few of the tables around us had been occupied during the time we were there.

“It’s almost two, we’d better go,” I said. But before we had gathered our things, the bistro’s manager loomed over us, her expression grim and disapproving. We hadn’t seen her before; only the server.

The manager came to tell us it was time to leave. We had spent too much time in her empty restaurant. Hastily, we gathered our jackets and purses and hustled out the door.

My friend said, “Maybe next time we should meet at McDonald’s."

How long is too long?

Did we overstay our welcome? How long is too long to remain at a table in a restaurant after finishing your food?

In Europe, the answer would be, as long as you want. When I’ve traveled in Europe, it’s been hard for me to flag a waiter over to ask for the check when I’m ready to leave. International diners enjoy a more leisurely pace.

But in the United States, expectations are different. I read about one restaurant that told its customers up front that they needed to be done with their meal in 90 minutes.

Another blog on fine dining said people should expect to stay in a restaurant for abut an hour and 45 minutes, tops, so once the bill was paid, customers should stop sitting there sipping their wine or coffee.

I can understand why restaurants, which often operate on a slim margin, would want to turn over tables as fast as possible. They need to make a profit. And I believe customers should be considerate if people are waiting in line to be seated.

But when a restaurant is almost empty, it doesn’t make sense to expect customers to hurry up. Dining out is an extravagance and a luxury for some, so they want to savor the experience. Additionally, a slow eater doesn’t want to be hurried.

I realize the restaurant business is stressful, because my son used to work in one, first a waiter, then as a cook. At the end of his work shift on a busy night, he was frazzled.

Pandemic Dining

During the pandemic, with lockdowns and social distancing requirements, restaurant owners and employees are especially stressed. At one restaurant my husband and I visited, throngs of people waited to get in. Tables were widely spaced and some were roped off to observe pandemic precautions, but no one was rushed.

Out of consideration for other diners, we didn’t overstay our welcome and left as soon as we had finished our meal.

But lunch at the French Bistro was a different story. The restaurant was open all afternoon. This was before the pandemic. And the restaurant was almost empty. Two hours did not seem overly long.

Maybe other restaurant managers feel differently and would agree we had overstayed our welcome. But my friend and I won’t be going back there, and she is the type of person who could have brought them a lot of business.

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA
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