Why You Can’t Get a Table for Six at a Restaurant

With ongoing staffing shortages, you and your gang of eight or even six are just too much work.
With ongoing staffing shortages, you and your gang of eight or even six are just too much work.

Summary

The noise, longer seatings and smaller per-person bills are negatives, so reservations for big groups are hard to come by.

Busy restaurants have a message for customers: Come dine with us. Leave your extra friends at home.

The eateries want your business, of course. But with ongoing staffing shortages, you and your gang of eight or even six are just too much work. Large parties, from couples out for date night to Grandma’s 80th birthday, suck up staff time and reduce a restaurant’s ability to turn over tables and make a profit during a period of increasing food costs. You’re kinda noisy too, which annoys other customers.

The pushback is leaving consumers both surprised and frustrated. How do you dine family-style with only half the family? Or celebrate the deal with only a few of the office crew?

Some determined diners are now calling reluctant restaurants to personally plead their case, or trying creative (and sneaky) workarounds, such as booking two tables that they then plan to push together. They say they have to get creative, since going through online reservations systems rarely seems to turn up large tables. Those who do manage to book larger parties say they sometimes must leave additional deposits or preorder—and prepay.

Craig Silver, 35, says he has spent hours over recent weeks trying to book a seven-person reservation for his fiancée’s birthday later this month.

He’s struck out on most of his top options and was hesitant to pay a $140 deposit that one restaurant wanted for the reservation. He estimates the table will likely spend more than $80 a person.

“I’m surprised at how hard this has been," says Silver, a Chicago-based app developer. “People want to go out and celebrate their birthdays with more than four people."

‘We can, but we won’t’

Groups of six or more made up 8% of the 2023 reservations booked on Resy, a reservations platform owned by American Express—a percentage that has held roughly stable since 2018. Just over half of reservations are for tables of two, according to the data.

“We don’t go above six. We can, but we won’t," says Kelly Whitaker, owner of The Wolf’s Tailor, a Denver spot serving wild game. The restaurant has tightened its seating policies in recent years. It now requires larger parties to work with the restaurant to preorder family-style meals to guarantee check averages.

Some diners don’t understand why the restaurant can’t accommodate their party of eight by pushing tables together. Regulars complain when they can’t get their big group in, says Whitaker, who owns four more restaurants in the area, some of which seat larger parties.

At New York’s Barbuto, tables for five and six are often the first to go when released for online reservations, general manager Evan Campbell says. The larger tables are generally offered only once an evening because the restaurant prefers seating smaller two- and four-tops. Those meals usually move faster, increasing table turnover and revenue.

Restaurateurs say the decision to offer smaller tables goes far beyond profits. Many are more conscious of the needs of their labor force since the pandemic. Seating too many large parties can put stress on the kitchen and waitstaff.

“It really throws a wrench in the gears of service," says Josh Tilden, a partner at Maxwells Trading, a new Chicago restaurant.

The restaurant, which is busy every night, limits seating parties larger than four for most of the evening. It tries to seat tables for five or six at either 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. The sole large table for 10 requires a deposit that becomes nonrefundable within a week of the reservation to protect against last-minute cancellations.

In Charleston, S.C., FIG rarely accommodates tables of more than six, chef and partner Mike Lata says. Continued demand from diners allows the 20-year-old restaurant to be more selective. Larger parties also tend to arrive at different times, slowing service.

“Eight people trying to get an order together could take 45 minutes," he says.

Searching for workarounds

Lauren Wire, a 35-year-old New York publicist, admits to being “a little bit more nimble" to land tables for seven or more people in the past few years. Since few reservation platforms let her book larger tables outright, she finds larger tables by having brunch instead of dinner or offers to squeeze seven people when she has managed to land one for six.

Seeing friends for meals out has become more important now that she works mostly from home. She tries to warn fellow diners that the restaurants willing to accommodate their group may not be as good or may require eating a preset menu.

Lynn Harris, 43, says if she’s going out in a group of six or eight, she tries to expand an already booked reservation for four, which can be easier than searching for a larger table from the outset. Instead, she’ll try to find out the restaurant’s phone number to speak to someone rather than making the change electronically.

“If I get someone on the phone, they are really accommodating and just act like a human being," says Harris, who works in software sales in Denver.

Sameer Paradkar, 48, a software engineer in West Windsor, N.J., who commutes to New York, says he hasn’t visited a restaurant in the city with a larger group in recent years.

“It’s too much of a hassle to go through all that for a bigger group," he says. He’s found some suburban restaurants closer to home eager to seat an eight-person group on the same evening.

At Astera, a new plant-based Portland, Ore., restaurant, owner Aaron Adams says customers “push back so hard" on the restaurant’s policy. He says he has become “emboldened" to explain to guests why the restaurant can’t just move tables together and accommodate a larger party.

And for those still not understanding, he’s quick to share some wisdom: “Invite people to your apartment and make dinner."

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