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Jennifer Redd spends a couple of hours each week answering angry e-mails, many from folks pissed off that they were asked to vacate their tables at Redd’s 6-month-old restaurant Vegetate. Occasionally the gripes elicit her sympathy, such as one from a diner who had brought her boyfriend to the vegetarian/vegan eatery for a birthday dinner. The customer praised the food but resented that Redd had asked her and her companion to move to the upstairs lounge after paying their check.
It’s just one of the times that Redd has “felt so bad that they had such a great time and that I ruined it,” she says. The Shaw restaurant’s co-founder passes along her apologies but simply can’t ditch her move-’em-up or move-’em-out policy. Vegetate, after all, has only 14 tables and no liquor license. “We need that table for dinner,” she says. “On a weekend night, we don’t have any other way to make money.”
During a busy shift, Vegetate’s relocation policy kicks in after about 90 minutes—a reasonable in-and-out time for a party of four or fewer, according to an informal poll of local restaurateurs. Vegetate distinguishes itself by its upfront approach to uprooting lingerers; other establishments around town engage more suggestive tactics. It’s all part of a turnover game that escalates in D.C.’s spring tourist season.
The game dampens diners’ belief that a meal should include unlimited table rental—after all, isn’t a restaurant supposed to be a home away from home?
Not necessarily. A restaurant’s viability depends on getting diners in and out, which often starts with two words: “No reservations.” Killing the notion of reserved space helps thwart those whom many in the business refer to as “campers,” diners who have the mentality that, as Redd puts it, “once I make a reservation, it’s my table.” Much was made of what some Web chatters referred to as the “annoying” and “cafeteria quick” reservation policies of popular 45-seat Arlington eatery Ray’s the Steaks—among them was, yes, a 90-minute limit on some tables—and the blogosphere now hums with news of chef/owner Michael Landrum’s recent decision to nix reservations altogether. Brightwood Park’s Colorado Kitchen became strictly walk-in (with the exception of Easter Sunday) three-and-a-half years ago, and despite some bellyaching by clientele, according to co-owner Robin Smith, it was a wise decision: “We’ve found that when we do [reservations], we have less people and less money.”
Café Bonaparte’s no-reservations brunch enlists waiting diners to oust camping diners. List-dwellers are forced into an outside vestibule, where a large window allows them to ogle the dining room and calculate which table will finish its crepes first. For those who can peaceably ignore the steady stream of gawkers just feet from their table, Bonaparte’s staff puts the gentle lean on. “If you’re done with your meal and you’re just lingering, then we give [you] a heads-up” of 10 or 15 minutes, says co-owner Omar Popal. If a customer is intent on staying, “I will approach them and say, ‘I can move you to the bar,’” he says.
The bar is the classic place to shift pokey diners and placate waiting ones: It is, for example, the hourlong roost of countless 20-somethings waiting for an outdoor table at Adams Morgan’s Lauriol Plaza, and it’s one of several spots that Dupont Circle’s Hotel Tabard Inn restaurant utilizes to keep its dining room unclogged. “Sometimes we’ll offer a [complimentary] drink if we have to move someone,” says Kristin Sposito, Tabard’s assistant manager.
End-of-meal freebies are the ultimate reward for disgruntled diners, but inducements to move on are usually more stick than carrot. Space is so tight at Bonaparte that staff sometimes cuts wait time by squeezing a party of three around a two-top table, says Popal. During a recent brunch visit to the Georgetown bistro, 23-year-old Quinn Peyser was on the receiving end of such a cozy arrangement. When the hostess directed Peyser, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend to a tiny back table, the trio “thought she was joking,” says Peyser. Her sister’s boyfriend was seated in a chair blocking the kitchen, she says, and after being asked by several servers to “scoot in”—and after having water spilled down his back—he vetoed plans to stick around for dessert. “It clearly wasn’t a spot where we were going to spend all afternoon,” says Peyser.
Restaurants also employ a number of intentional signals to remind lingerers that they’re squatting in valuable real estate. A dawdler at 2 Amys might find that staffers are pulling up neighboring tables in preparation for a larger party. Or a sluggish group at Colorado Kitchen might look up to see a different server asking after its comfort. “It’s one of those weird things,” says Colorado’s Smith, “where if a new face comes along, people get the hint.” Smith cops to tossing out more blatant cues when diners linger long after closing time. “We’ve had people here upwards of an hour after we’re closed, and we kinda want to go,” says Smith. “Sometimes we’ll crank the music up.”
And if creative cajoling is too much of a hassle, there’s always the überdirect approach. In an effort to fend off those looking for the guarantee of a long-term campsite, Ray’s Landrum has included this cheerfully delivered warning in the restaurant’s answering-machine message: “Please note: We are a very small restaurant! We have no bar area, we have no waiting area, and we therefore cannot recommend you make a special visit to dine with us!” —Anne Marson
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