Dear Etiquetteer: How long prior to a food establishment’s posted closing time is a reasonable minimum to expect to be able to arrive? For instance, if the closing time is 9:30 pm, should one feel comfortable arriving at 9:15, expecting to be seated and served? Then how long after that posted closing time is acceptable time to linger?
Is there any difference in the etiquette based on the type of establishment? Fine dining will likely be a time consuming affair with many courses. Casual dining establishments will likely have a shorter turnover time, but still involve seated service. Counter service places like coffee shops, have a percentage of patrons who sit and enjoy their purchases and their books/papers/homework/web-surfing/chatting with friends, while others purchase and go. Do these difference in service styles make a difference to the way in which a patron should observe the posted closing time, and the service they should expect to receive?
Thanks much for your thoughts on the matter.
Your query made Etiquetteer wonder if you still have a bruise on your coccyx from the doorknob hitting you on the way out.
Two competing considerations work against each other here: consideration for diners to be able to enjoy their meal, and consideration for the staff who cannot finish their work (closing the restaurant) and go home until all diners have left the restaurant. Etiquetteer believes that any diner who finds the door to a restaurant open should be able to expect a restaurant's full service. But diners arriving at such a time that they can expect still to be dining after closing time show courtesy to the staff by ordering decisively and not dawdling over coffee or paying the bill. Restaurateurs eager not to pay staff overtime would do well to lock the door against late arrivals, opening it only to allow departing patrons to exit.
You are correct that how this is handled is guided by the style of service provided, although courtesy is the common thread among each. White-tablecloth restaurants with extensive wine lists can't really expect to rush patrons through a dinner that extends well past closing time. They can manage this by not accepting reservations, or walk-in diners, after a certain time. For instance, if a restaurant's posted closing time is 11:00 PM, they can decline to accept reservations after 10:00 PM. Casual restaurants should do the same, but may also emphasize closing time when greeting late arrivals ("We're closing in ten minutes.") Sometimes restaurants make it clear that service is reduced before closing; Etiquetteer knows one popular pub that makes it clear on the menu "Only pizza after 10:00 PM." In a coffee shop or diner, Etiquetteer sees no discourtesy in a general announcement made by the manager "Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be closing in ten minutes." Young Etiquetteer briefly worked for a Popular Doughnut Chain many years ago, and for the closing shift this announcement might have been made individually.
Not long ago Etiquetteer joined a party of five arriving at a popular Chinese restaurant five minutes before its closing time. To its credit, the party was ready to order almost as soon as it was seated. But conversation captured the enthusiasm of the party more than the excellent cuisine. The staff, not eager to stay later than necessary after a long day, made a point by beginning closing the dining room about 15 minutes after dinner had been served. They stacked chairs at other tables and brought out the vacuum cleaner, beginning closest to Etiquetteer's table. Given that the total bill for a party of five, including tip, would not have reached three figures, Etiquetteer can't fault the staff . . . but would have wished for five more minutes of vacuum-free dining.
Speaking of not dawdling over paying the bill, Etiquetteer was both interested and dismayed to read this article about restaurant technology. Etiquetteer does not like to think such applications are necessary because public education should at least provide enough knowledge of math to manage splitting a restaurant check, and because Etiquetteer finds that the longer a party parses a check, the less joyously the occasion is remembered.
Etiquetteer would absolutely love to hear your own queries about Perfect Propriety! Please send them to queries_at_etiquetteer.com.