Dining Out Near Closing Time: How Late Is Too Late?

Categories: In the Trenches

chairsup.jpg
Photo by André Hofmeister
This is a good indication that you've arrived far too late. Turn around and go elsewhere.
How late is too late to order food at a restaurant? That was the thought that plagued me as I sped toward Jeannine's Bistro last week, determined to get in a necessary lunch of moules-frites for a post. The bistro closes for lunch at 2 p.m.; at best, I was going to make it in the door at 1:40 p.m. I recalled my days as a hostess and waitress and felt chagrined.

The latest I like to enter a restaurant prior to its closing is 30 minutes. I feel that this is a reasonable buffer of time for the kitchen to take final orders before breaking down and cleaning up and for your average diner to get through a meal. I would never dream of walking into a restaurant a few minutes before closing -- not just because of the icy glares I'd surely get from the waiters, but also because I remember how tired I was at the end of a long shift, how eager I was to get off my feet and out of clothes that constantly smelled of refried beans.

I felt bad enough entering Jeannine's Bistro at 1:40 p.m. that day, even though the waitstaff was utterly gracious and accommodating the entire time, never once indicating that I was cutting it close or that they wanted to rush me out the door. But that hasn't always been the case at other restaurants.

In an article for Creative Loafing last year, LA Weekly food critic Besha Rodell told a tale of being rushed rudely through her meal after arriving at 10:25 p.m. -- even though the restaurant didn't close until 11 p.m. We've all experienced the same phenomenon: Waiters staring holes through your head while wiping down tables and stacking chairs all around you, eventually slamming the door behind you as you leave.

So how late is too late to darken a restaurant's door?

"If they're not willing to take orders up until closing time (and I agree this is an ambiguous concept, closing time, that is)," says Robert Sietsema, food critic for The Village Voice, "they should do what my laundromat does when it posts a sign that says, 'Last Wash at 7:30.'"

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Photo by Edward Webb
How strictly must a business adhere to its posted hours?
Chimes in fellow food critic Scott Reitz at the Dallas Observer: "Robert's right. Customers shouldn't be expected to guess an arbitrary time that's acceptable for ordering. A customer should be able to walk in and place an order any time within the posted hours. If that's not acceptable, it's on the restaurant to make their expectations clear."

Food writers who've worked in restaurants can't help but see things from the waitstaff's point of view, including Hanna Raskin at the Seattle Weekly: "As an eater," she says, "I have a very different opinion on this matter than I did as a working waitress. Since I have to plan my meals in advance, I rarely run up against a closing time, but agree with our colleagues that a restaurant is obligated to honor whatever's on the door. If a restaurant is open to 9 p.m., someone who shows up at 8:59 p.m. should get the same treatment as the diner who arrived at 5:59 p.m."

However, Raskin contends: "The problem is, diners do a notoriously bad job of handling their restaurant freedoms, such as determining a tip. Same goes for behaving considerately at the tail end of service." And often, it's these same stragglers that leave a completely unacceptable tip for keeping the restaurant open past its posted business hours.

If a restaurant closes for lunch at, say, 2 p.m., sommelier Evan Turner says that the latest he'd expect a customer in the door would be "1:45 p.m., but you had better tip big time." Tipping considerately for keeping the kitchen open is a good rule of thumb, as is calling ahead.

"In my own experience," says Riverfront Times food critic Ian Froeb, "I've found a friendly phone call on the way to a restaurant -- 'Hey, we were thinking of swinging by in x minutes. Could we still order?' -- can improve your odds, especially if you give a definite time frame and specify if you're looking for just appetizers, a meal, the tasting menu (good luck with that) or whatever."

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Photo by Gwen Harlow
You'd better tip these guys for keeping them at work so late.
Even if you don't call ahead, however, a good restaurant will serve you anyway.

Says Amanda McGraw, executive chef at River Oaks hotspot Brasserie 19: "I believe you should serve up to 15 minutes past the time posted. Our lunch ends at 3 p.m., but we still serve lunch until 4 p.m. sometimes. Our dinner ends at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends, but we still serve 30 minutes past closing time often."

She adds: "A pet peeve of mine is walking into a restaurant 20 minutes before closing and the host acts like they are doing me a favor by seating me, so we do the opposite here! We are here to serve. Guests pay our paychecks. I would never want to rush a guest or make anyone feel unwelcome."

Carlos Rodriguez, the executive chef at swanky downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's, agrees: "We will keep seating and taking orders after close, basically until there is nobody left to serve. The cutoff only occurs when there are no more orders working in the kitchen. In other words, if a table sits at 10:05 p.m. and orders at 10:15 p.m., and another table shows up while we're still cooking that order, we will seat the new table. We won't turn anyone away, basically, unless we have already shut down the equipment and begun to clean."

"I will say," Rodriguez concedes, "the staff hates it, but I really believe that it breeds goodwill with our guests to know that they are always welcome to come in."



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Location Info

Jeannine's Bistro - CLOSED

106 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Brasserie 19

1962 W. Gray St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse

1510 Texas St., Houston, TX

Category: Music

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16 comments
Matthew
Matthew

if the table's in a fine location, i'm ambivalent. but i'm not gonna sit in a shitty location or right next to another table of diners when there are empty tables available. but i guess if the hostess was doing her job, this wouldn't happen.

T-Ray
T-Ray

Well, if you were smart, you'd care about getting service from waitstaff that's not overwhelmed.

Ryan Supak
Ryan Supak

30 minutes from closing seems to be the time that you can always show up with no retribution (rushed service, lights shutting off overhead, etc). There are some places that make you feel welcome near closing time (kudos to them) and some that don't. I can't keep track of which are which on what days, so a 30 minute buffer has always served me well. If I arrive late and the waitstaff is eager to leave, I've always found that extra consideration for their situation (be ready to order, don't linger too long, tip well for the trouble) is always more than reciprocated, especially on future visits. I know some people who feel that the waitstaff should be overjoyed to wait on them in all situations, but I've just never felt comfortable with that. Maybe it was growing up poor that "ruined" me, I don't know. rs

T-Ray
T-Ray

The point of the article is be realistic and have everyone, customer and service worker, TREAT EACH OTHER LIKE HUMAN BEINGS. To the people calling Evan Turner and Katherine Shillcut backpedalers and the bad customer service supporters, you sound a little guilty. Like Katherine said, everyone wants to have an enjoyable experience. Even if I tell you, "You have 15 minutes, GO!" you're still probably going to feel a little bothered and rushed. Approaching this matter in a gracious manner is essential. The restaurant featured are high-end, high-quality restaurants and I don't think their diners or waiters expect any less. However, not everyone works (or dines) at these types of restaurants. Especially in the case of waiting tables, you never know if it's actually going to be worth staying the extra time. I don't mind if you're finishing up your meal, but I've literally had people stay an hour or an hour and a half after closing (midnight), basically past the time when we're legally allowed to serve food, per our operating permit. I will say in this situation, I've seen people tip well and tip horribly. I usually feel worse for the cooks, because they turn out some amazing food, come in the earliest and leave the latest. This article is simply to target the few inconsiderate people who continue idle chatter long after the restaurant is closed. Save it for next time. Also, to the people out there who want to choose their seat (messin' up the rotation) like they're at a football game need to cut it out and let the hostess seat you (it's her job).

Billy Castillo
Billy Castillo

 The closing staff got to eat a meal?! Our place just throws it away ((grrr))

Evan Turner
Evan Turner

Thank you Katherine, I greatly appreciate the compliment. I at times can be snarky on my Twitter feed, along with bragging about the Celtics and arguing with a friend over politics. It was clearly not the place to discuss service standards regarding when to serve people. That is why it is my personal feed and not one affiliated with any restaurant.  I just want to be perfectly clear: It is the SERVICE industry. We are there to serve you in every way we humanly can. I will always maintain that as the mantra by which I work.

Chuck
Chuck

That's the attitude to have, Jamessilk, good on ya.

Chuck
Chuck

A quote is just that, a quote. Don't backpedal, you sound like a politician.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

 She agreed with me & said she'd talk to the deli about it.  This was last month, so I haven't had a chance to see if they have improved.  This is also the Spec's on Buffalo Spdwy.

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

My philosophy towards this question was developed many, many years ago. My family and I were in Dickinson hungry for Chinese. We stopped at a place we liked about 20 minutes before posted closing time. We thought nothing of it but noticed the icy reception we received from the staff as we walked into the deserted dining area. We were promptly seated and asked for our orders. The stares from the staff became more evident as they cleared the tables and then prepared for the closing staff meal. Our order was brought out and we began to dine as the entire staff sat a table close and began their community meal. At exactly closing time, the waiter sat up and walked over to our table with a mouth full of food. He quietly picked up all of our uneaten dishes, put them into to go containers and handed us our check. Never was a word said. I looked at my wife. We both laughed out loud and both said together that we guessed it was time to leave. We paid and walked out still laughing at what had just happened. To this day, I still have trouble going into a restaurant any time later than an hour until closing. I do it but I keep waiting for my uneaten food to be handed to me in sack. TA

BP
BP

I'm a late luncher too. Lankford stays open til 3...why can't Breakfast Klub? Sometimes I want catfish and grits at 2:15.

Matthew
Matthew

how'd the conversation with the manager go?

Matthew
Matthew

that's the thing about a service oriented job. you serve the customer. perhaps your boss should clarify that work ends when all the customers have been taken care of, not the stroke of the closing hour.

T-Ray
T-Ray

That's not the point. If you knew what the floor plan was, then you'd know best, fact of the matter is, you don't. In a restaurant, you're a guest and expected to behave as one.

Matthew
Matthew

because when i go out to eat, the seating rotation is what i care about.

T-Ray
T-Ray

No, but if one cares about good service, then one would, but morons don't know any better, I suppose.

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