I enjoy eating as much as the next guy, and while going out to eat is a popular American pastime, waiting for your waiter to show up is not. Or the host. Or the food.
Waiting, waiting, waiting: It doesn't make sense to me. So while I've seen plenty of tips to have a cheap restaurant experience when eating out, this article focuses on saving time. By employing a few simple strategies, you can easily reduce the time you spend waiting during your dining experience. And since we all have those occasions where time rivals the food as a priority, here are my 10 tips for getting in and out of a restaurant fast.
1. Make reservations ASAP
Make a reservation at any restaurant that will take them, especially when dining out on a weekend night. Anyone who's worked in the restaurant business knows that this does not eliminate a wait, but it certainly cuts down on your time. Call a few days in advance, get that reservation in, and then you just have to show up for it. And in the case of uber-popular restaurants -- the four-star candidates come to mind -- call as far in advance as possible. Then you can act like me; I can't help but smirk as I walk past all those "non-reserved" people.
2. No reservation? Always call ahead
If your favorite restaurant doesn't offer reservations, it may offer call-ahead seating. Simply call the restaurant 30 minutes or an hour before you heading out, and get your name on "the wait list." That way, you're actually doing some of your waiting in the car while you're driving to the restaurant. This is especially crucial if you have a party of five or more, as it always takes time to set up a larger table. .
3. Get the inside scoop before you go
Call the restaurant a few days before you go and ask how busy they get on the weekends. If the place is off the beaten path, you may be able to stroll in without any kind of wait at all. Information like this -- or learning that the place always has a two-hour wait after 7 p.m. Saturday -- helps you to plan your meal. I'll often explain my evening plans to the receptionist and ask them if there's anything I can do to minimize my wait. For example; Some restaurants have an open-view kitchen, and typically these seats are less desirable -- and thus easier to snag.
4. Order early
If you find yourself waiting in the lobby of a crowded restaurant, see if you can start your dining experience early. If you go to the bar for a drink, order an appetizer. It's usually pretty easy to get whatever you order transferred over to your actual dinner bill. Better yet: Look for tables in the bar area for drink patrons that can, in a pinch, serve as your dinner table and circumvent the dining room wait. Continuing with this idea, try to order dinner while you wait if it's an especially time-consuming item to cook. For example, anyone from Chicago knows that all deep dish pizza restaurants will take orders while you wait since these pies can often bake for 45 minutes or more.
5. Cut to the coupon chase
If you have some great discounts or coupons, give it to the hostess or the waiter as you're seated. There is no reason to wait until the end of the meal to give them your Groupon coupon, your AAA card to get your AAA membership discount, or your Entertainment Book 2011 coupon. As a former restaurant manager, I can tell you that these discounts can sometimes cause a lot of trouble for the waiter to validate: bar codes don't scan properly, the restaurant isn't fitted for that specific discount, or the coupon may have a small-print expiration date. Give the restaurant a chance to work out any issues while you're enjoying your meal, instead of when you're itching to leave.
6. Don't get the T-bone!
During my restaurant career, I used to chuckle to myself when dinner guests in a hurry would order a well-done steak. If your goal is to get in and out of a restaurant fast, keep in mind that what you order plays a large role in that. Stay away from any kind of red meat cooked medium-well or well done -- or a fish entree unless it's deep-fried. (Serving undercooked fish can be incredibly dangerous, so most kitchens will make sure that your fish is cooked through and through. This is a key strategy in any restaurant's remedies to prevent various types of food poisoning.) Also, if you're planning on ordering some fancy souffle chocolate dessert, order it while you enjoy your appetizers or main course. Keep in mind that kitchens get so swamped on the weekends that putting together desserts takes a back seat to cooking entrees. Therefore, sometimes your wait for a dessert can be absurdly long.
7. Do get the salad and appetizers
If you're in a hurry, consider any kind of salad entree or pasta meal. Also, keep in mind that many appetizers can be meals in and of themselves and are designed to be prepared in a fairly short amount of time. In doubt? Ask your server, who will know better than anyone what a kitchen can cook in a short period of time. Also keep in mind that it does no good if you order salad and someone else in your party orders that well-done steak. Get everyone on the same page if you need to catch a movie, or a flight at the airport.
8. You don't have to wait for your waiter
Unless I'm on some kind of romance-filled evening, I like to make my meal quick and to the point. I don't like waiting a long time for my dinner, dessert or the bill. And in many cases, neither does your server! They want to get you in and out fast so they can "turn the table" and make more money. For the most part, no one is rooting against your moving quickly. That said, do keep an eye peeled for servers hanging out at the wait station and chatting up their co-workers while you've been waiting for the bill a good 10 minutes. Don't be shy about walking up to them and asking for the bill.
9. Think off-peak hours
The easiest way to quickly get in and out of a restaurant is to always eat out very early or very late. Do keep in mind that while lines at the host stand will be much shorter, the kitchen crew may be in the process of prepping for the morning, or closing for the evening. So be careful to time your visit right; if you have a favorite restaurant, prepare to try a few different off-peak intervals to see if one works especially well.
10. Check, Please?
Most importantly, once everyone at the table is done ordering (notice how I said "ordering" and not "eating"), ask for the check. When you're finished eating, there's not much left to your experience ... except dessert, coffee and/or waiting for the check. If you decide to add those items on at the end of the meal, it's usually not much of a problem -- but do give yourself the option to get out quick by requesting that check at the outset.
Parting shot: It's not all about speed
I'm not saying to time your stomach with a stopwatch, inhale your burger or look to set some sort of Guinness World record for speed eating. If you're on a date, by all means take your time. But if you're trying to catch a show or sporting event, or simply get home in time to relieve your sitter and tuck the kids in, try some of the tips above and you should make it out on time.
David Bakke is a columnist for Money Crashers, one of the 40 top personal finance blogs online. Check out more of David's work related to financial topics like smart shopping, saving money, getting out of debt, preparing for retirement, and investing for the future.
Faster food: A pro's 10 best tips for quick, quality restaurant service