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This week’s question comes from Jessica Shahin of the District who wants to know:
Why is it that when a restaurant is practically empty, they nonetheless seat you right next to a table with patrons?
Funny you should ask, Jessica. I had this exact experience several months ago at Viridian near Logan Circle. My wife, Carrie, and I had stopped in to see how chef Michael Hartzer was doing after leaving Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring. It was a Tuesday night—-maybe around 9, not exactly prime-dining time—-and the restaurant was almost as bare as the whitewashed, museumlike walls at Viridian. A few folks were lingering over meals at tables by the front windows.
The first thing the host did was to tell us to wait in the bar. If this was a ploy to get us to order drinks, it was a stupid one. I would have ordered the same thing at the table—-at any one of the vast ocean of open tables. Five minutes later, our table was suddenly ready. The host dropped us off at a two-top near the front window, near the other diners.
I decided to buzz Viridian general manager Kevin Blonshine to get the scoop—-for Jessica and for my own peace of mind—-but he was away. In his place, bar manager Naveen Sidhu was serving as acting GM. He was clearly nervous about saying anything stupid in Blonshine’s stead, but he need not worry. Here’s what he had to say in response to Jessica’s question:
“We generally tend not to do that,” Sidhu says. “If a restaurant is empty or not as full as you’d like it to be, it would be at the diner’s request where they’d like to sit. We offer that constantly….We can assign servers to different places. That doesn’t really make a difference.”
I guess I should have made my confession at the start of our conversation, before Sidhu gave his answer, but I waited until he finished to mention that Carrie and I had lived out the very scenario in Jessica’s question earlier this year at Viridian. I wondered if the restaurant didn’t have a policy about seating customers together by the window.
“It’s definitely not a policy,” Sidhu responds. “It’s just any normal business decision that you would make. You want full exposure to the street. Obviously in a situation in a restaurant like we have, we have large windows up front. You want to see that’s there some exposure to the restaurant from guests [who] are walking by, so perhaps that you can attract more walk-ins.”
But, Sidhu adds, “If you had requested to sit in a different area, there’s no way that we wouldn’t have done that request for you.”
D’Acqua manager Raimondo Russo echoes Sidhu’s comment about the psychology of clumping customers by windows. “The real answer that is this: If the restaurant is empty, and you put people in a different area of the restaurant, it still looks empty,” Russo says, laughing. “But when you put people, not close to each other, but like in the same area, someone will look from the outside and the restaurant will look full.”
“Let’s say you have two restaurants on opposite corners,” Russo adds. “Now you’re walking by one, and he has five or six tables right in front of you, so you see, let’s say, 20 people. Then you walk by the other corner restaurant, you only see one person. The first thing that comes out of you goes, ‘Wow, maybe that restaurant is better. It’s full. It’s got six or seven tables. This other guy only has one table.'”
But, as I point out to Russo, if you actually walk into the restaurant with 20 people, the illusion would quickly vanish. You’d see that it was still mostly empty.
“Mostly, people will walk by the restaurant. They really don’t like walking in,” Russo counters. “But the next time that they have to choose a restaurant, they might say, ‘Remember we were walking on Pennsylvania Avenue by that restaurant [that] was a little bit busy? Let’s go try it.'”
In the end, both Russo and Sidhu say that a customer’s request for a seat, no matter where in the vast landscape of a nearly empty restaurant, will always trump the business’ desire to look busy. Bottom line: If you feel like canoodling with your own kind—-and not the knuckle-dragging, foaming-at-the-mouth masses—-you just need to speak up.
To submit a question to Ask Tim, just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.