Dine and dally

Lingering is one thing, but camping? Pull up those stakes!

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We all know these people: The party guest who will not leave, even though the hosts have changed into pajamas. The person on the phone who won't hang up until you fake an emergency. ("Oh my God, there's a bear on my patio! Yes, in my high-rise! Gotta go!")

In the normal course of the day, they're a nuisance. In the restaurant world, they're expensive.

They are the Dining Campers.

Parker Mann, of Ventura, Calif., shared his horror story, experienced in a Denver restaurant.

"We were a party of 11 with a 7:30 reservation," he said, "and the hostess identified the tables where we'd be seated. One was empty, the other had a party of five who had paid their bill and were expected to leave soon. Except they didn't.

They continued to talk, oblivious that it was now 8 p.m. and there was a 45-minute wait for tables. And the hostess was not going to intervene. So I finally walked over to the squatters and told them strongly that they needed to move. They were angry, and the hostess wasn't happy with me either, but at least they left and we got to eat."

Now, before I hear from the "don't push me out the door" crowd, let's recap. A table of five, occupying not one but two tables, finished with dinner 7ish, bill paid by 7:30, still hunkered down like an outmanned platoon at 8 p.m. with the waiting area packed. Even putting aside their casual disregard for the restaurant's game attempt at profitability, these lingerers owe a little courtesy to their fellow diners, don't you think?

I resisted the urge to applaud the, ahem, proactive approach my correspondent took — confrontations like this can lead to "Police called to midtown restaurant" headlines — and instead wondered, where was the manager in all this? Isn't this what managers are for?

At least one manager agrees.

Aundrea Wainscott is the general manager of Plum, a communal-seating restaurant in downtown Oakland, Calif., and calls table squatters her "worst case scenario," but says when these issues arise, a manager has to act.

"It happened last night," Wainscott said. "I had a table of people hanging around 25 minutes after everything was cleared. I've got people waiting 15 minutes past their reserved time and I'm handing out complimentary prosecco. We're tiny, with 48 seats, so people waiting are in our face, blocking the entrance.

"So gently, I told the party that I loved that they were having fun, and loved that we're able to provide that kind of experience, but that I had a party outside freezing, dying to sit at a table they reserved a half-hour ago," she said. "They were generous and nice about it, and the other table got seated, so everybody was happy."

Other restaurants, especially ones with bar space (which Plum should have in a few weeks, Wainscott said), can try the old can-I-buy-you-a-drink-at-the-bar ploy, in which customers vacate the table in exchange for a free round of drinks, or perhaps dessert.

"It's really kind of a bummer, because it costs us money, but whatever," said Nancy Longo, chef/owner of Pierpoint Restaurant in Baltimore. "Or a lot of times, we'll remove every item from their table, except for that water glass on which they have a death grip; once we start doing that, along with several 'Can I get you anything else' inquiries, they get the message. At least you're making a gesture and not saying, 'Get the hell off my table.' You still run the risk (of offending customers), but you know you've already taken the higher road.

"My last straw is to buy the waiting party a drink, let them order appetizers and say, 'By the time the food is ready I will have you in a table, one way or another,'" Longo said. "It could backfire one day, but so far it's worked every time."

Certainly there are restaurants that would never dream of curtailing a party's evening, no matter how long they linger. These for the most part are very expensive restaurants, or high-capacity chains that have so many tables that occasional campers (Longo calls them "the ones with the tent spikes") don't have much impact.

But in a small-scale restaurant, the $200-or-so difference between turning (reseating) a table two times rather than three times is a big chunk of money.

"It definitely makes a difference in profit," Wainscott said, "but ultimately we're focused on guest service, so you definitely have to look at the bigger picture. You walk in every night in hopes that things will move like a classic ballet, and the majority of the time it works out."

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @PhilVettel
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