I recently praised an independent, family-owned restaurant for their grace when I entered at a quarter to close expecting to be served. Their poise, welcome, and efficiency in the face of "trying to get out of there" were admirable, and in addition to their incredibly delicious food, will inspire me to return again and again. And yet, a commenter on that post called me an "asshole" for entering so close to closing. Another suggested I let them know where I work so that they could come and impinge on my own ability to get out of work at a reasonable hour.
On that same day, a local chef was admonishing a Yelp reviewer for giving a negative review of a restaurant in part for poor service around closing time. The chef said that an industry person would "never, ever" sit down within 20 minutes of close expecting to be served.
But should industry etiquette extend to the general public?
I said no. But for industry people, this is a really hot-button issue. I put out this inquiry on Facebook: "Sitting down at a restaurant at a quarter-to-close. Thoughts?" Within a couple of hours I got 30 responses, including five of those angry emojis.
As far as I'm concerned, the best restaurants should run like a home where it comes to hospitality. Guests should be treated as such, and if a guest were to turn up at your door during a time frame that you invited him, would you make him feel unwelcome because you decided to tidy up early? You wouldn't. Guests are invited to the restaurant during posted hours. They should not care if the server or the cook has a bottle of Pinot Grigo chilling in the fridge and the final episode of Orange Is the New Black burning a hole in the DVD player.
And while there are indeed unspoken rules of industry etiquette (sending a round of drinks to the kitchen is another), I argue that those don't apply to the general public.
But certainly not everyone agrees with me. Longtime kitchen professional Cameron Borne invites you to consider "if there are, say, three cooks on and they average $12 an hour and you order right before close it may add 30 minutes more labor per cook, and it means the restaurant is not really profiting at all on your late table."
But Bob Parker, owner of Ward 6 in St. Paul, says there's another way to look at that equation: "Had a couple last night in with nine minutes to go. They had tried Mama's and they were closed. But we are open until 10 and we mean it, so we just go with it. They were really cool people, and will now definitely be back, knowing more about us. They loved their drinks, and it was a salad and a chicken dinner. NBD."
I tend to agree with Parker. The pos vibes you get with a warm welcome will translate into repeat visits and positive word-of-mouth.
But even the suggestion that it's cool to sit down within that unspoken 30-minute-before-close window can get many a kitchen staff's ire up in a hurry. My Facebook thread has already devolved into name calling, with one person hurling the insult "douche," with a retaliatory "shitty cook and human being."
OITNB and pinot is powerful, folks.
But I say there is an easy workaround for this debate. If an establishment really doesn't want to run into stragglers, their posted hours can simply read: "5 p.m. to close." Then it's the prerogative of the kitchen to close when the tickets have gone from trickle mode to stop. Savvy cooks will always multitask and begin "breaking things down" when the rush slows. Sanitizing flat tops, wiping down cold wells, sweeping, cleaning sinks, and the trillion other little tasks can always be tended to in between tickets. One or two last tables might be the bane of the cook's existence, but it is also the reality.
Once the kitchen is indeed closed, a savvy host can simply say, "The kitchen is closed but you're welcome to stay for a drink." (That is if the bartender is ready and willing -- another post for another day).
And for the general public, there is onus on us, too. Popping in for a quick drink, appetizer, or takeout order at a quarter to close is cool. Lingering for a multi-course dinner in an empty dining room is not. And, if you really wanna get on board with some etiquette, don't be afraid to send a drink back to the kitchen. It's a surefire way to get some extra love in your late-night eats.