A veteran brunch host explains why that particular meal is a shitshow by design
It's brunch time and the restaurant is packed. You try to get the attention of a server bearing a water pitcher in one hand and a thermos of coffee in the other, menus shoved under an arm, but they just say that the host will be with you in a second as they brush past. A baby is protesting its confinement in a high chair at a volume and pitch that seems impossible for any human, let alone one so small. Nearby, a table is covered in plates but devoid of people, the tablecloth is trickling syrup onto the floor and the brown paper that was supposed to protect the cloth is saturated in a mixture of Cheerios, a ravaged berry-soaked pancake and the last drops of an overturned creamer. Warren G sings that he's constantly encountering the same woman no matter where life takes him, except he says it with greater vulgarity and much louder than you feel comfortable with.
You're wondering where this host is, or if the server was putting you on when you see a person striding fast in your direction, bearing a clipboard. At last! The phone rings, this person glances at the bartender, who's already got the phone to their ear, runs to grab the line and then pops up to gesture at you to wait one second while they talk on the phone. It takes literally one second, as this person just says "no" and hangs up. As the host finally approaches you, the server who rushed past you starts to clear the mess from the table that looks like a bomb hit it. Just as you're explaining that you'll be a party of three, but only two of you are here, the server swipes the cloth off the table and launches Cheerios across the room. The host tells you the wait will be 30-45 minutes, but all of you have to be present in order to get sat.
You helpfully point out that the table with the screaming infant has asked for their check while the host's back is to them, and you and your friend who is here would love to order drinks while you wait for your third. The host says that people are already waiting for that table, and you're welcome to drink at the bar (which is full) or leave your name and phone number and you'll get a text when the table is ready.
This is madness, you think. Who would wait 45 minutes on a frigid day to eat in such a noisy, chaotic environment? Why won't the host let you sit now, especially since you promised to order drinks until your late friend shows up? How is it possible that the music and the baby both got louder?
To which I can only answer: yes, it is; so, so, so many people; I trust no one; we're trying to drown out the baby with the music/make its parents so uncomfortable that they leave. But if you'd like more specifics, as a person who has been that harried restaurant brunch host several thousand times, I am uniquely qualified to offer them.
Why don't we take reservations? That way no one would have to wait.
We did, once. The problem is that the world is full of people like your third friend: unfamiliar with the subway lines near us, hungover, just chronically late. So you sit at your table until your friend arrives, but it's now 30 minutes since you sat down, and I only budgeted 60 for you to be there at all, and you haven't seen your late friend in a while, and so you sit for 75 minutes on top of the initial 30 you were behind, and the table behind you is irate with me because I'm an hour behind on their reservation. We also had people doing things like making reservations for a party of two, then showing up with four, because it's only two more, so it can't be that big a deal, right? These are the reasons why I trust no one.
But wait, what about at dinner? You've been to the restaurant at dinner, and you made reservations then. You even saw me running behind at dinner one night, and I sent little cups of soup over to make peace with the table once I got them sat down. Why not just do that?
Two words: check average. We have a pretty expensive brunch, and the average amount spent per person is about $22 before tax and tip. We also have a pretty expensive dinner, where diners are at about $55. But we need to do 2.5 customers during brunch for every 1 at dinner in order for the math to work out on our end.
So why not just raise the price at brunch?
As I have heard many times when I quote those long waits for people to eventually sit in our little establishment and listen to Sonic Youth screeching-feedback while the table next to you sobs through a breakup: We are not The Four Seasons. This is true.
1. The Four Seasons is closed.
2. We are not in Midtown Manhattan.
3 (and most important). Would you really pay so much more for eggs-'n'-stuff and vodka/tomato-juice-'n'-stuff that I could keep things civilized in here? Look in your heart. Would you really pony up for that?
Couldn't you hire more staff to keep things under control?
I get where your head's at and I assure you it's not so the people working don't have their tips diluted. We've added staff in the past, and things moved faster and service got better, which increased sales and tips on those sales. No, we've unfortunately run into basic Newtonian physics. It's a small space and the extra set of hands are attached to another body and we'd just end up running into each other or creating traffic jams as we tried not to run into each other. Tried it, didn't work. Sorry.
It does smell good in here. Is that why people wait?
Can't you do anything about the babies?
We do our best to seat them directly under speakers, so that, if necessary, their screams are drowned out by Bruce Springsteen comparing himself to an automobile yet again. Or their parents have to try and converse over one of Clarence Clemons' interminable saxophone solos played as loud as my speakers go. We also don't have a changing table and make them fold the strollers or park them outside. Also, not to be glib, but people in New York are getting their dogs licensed as service animals to treat their anxiety just so they can bring them into restaurants. Can you imagine what would happen if I told them to leave their baby at home?
Well, I do like Bruce Springsteen.
You probably shouldn't have told me that.
Well, remember that my main goal is to get you in, fed and out in the least amount of time. Knowledge of what makes you comfortable is information I can exploit to expedite that process by making you uncomfortable.
You're not very nice. Everyone at the bar likes the bartender. They're laughing and all seem to be regulars. Those Champagne cocktails look tasty. Why isn't the bartender the host?
Because we all have roles. Mine is not to be nice, it's to be efficient. The bartender needs to be both. And the Champagne cocktails are excellent. We use good ingredients and there's a lot of bubbly in them, so you're not getting ripped off. And for the record, I am nice, it's just on a macro scale.
Who's ripping me off, and what does it mean to be macro nice?
First, most places that serve brunch make money by overcharging you for the food and giving away free drinks. Those free drinks are served in smaller glasses that are mostly mixer, not alcohol. And the alcohol they use is not good. We're making you pay more, but we're using superior quality ingredients.
Second, it's easiest to think of this as a trick in the English language. Our word for second-person singular is the same as second-person plural. In French, to use one example, they use tu and vous. Our closest expression to vous would be y'all. I want to be nice to you, just not so nice that I sacrifice my ability to be nice to y'all. That's the macro level that I operate on.
But I want someone to be nice to me.
Go sit at the bar. The bartender will sing you the lyrics to this ditty that's been playing while we've chatted.
What is that song?
2Pac: "All About U".