It finally happened. You managed to snag a reservation at a restaurant you’ve been dying to try. Then comes some version of this message: There’s a time limit on your table. From the moment your order is in, you might have only an hour to eat multiple courses. If there’s a wine pairing, you’re going to have to knock those glasses back like it’s 2012 and you’re doing Jager bombs at the club. What if you want to order another drink? Well, you can’t, because your time is up. 

Though these time limits are often totally logical from a restaurant perspective, there’s no doubt that the vibe has shifted: Long, leisurely dinners are fast becoming a thing of the past. And the tension between what’s good for restaurants and what appeals to diners seems to be mounting.

American restaurants and their customers have been bickering about the appropriate time to spend at a restaurant for more than a decade. But this new era of timed reservations started in earnest during the pandemic, when capacity limits and staff shortages made it near impossible for the average restaurant to make ends meet. The reasons this counterculture practice has stuck around in many cities are simple: Capping the time a party can spend at a table helps a restaurant sell more food to more people. It also makes it easier for staff to provide a streamlined and predictable experience—and gently nudge lingerers out the door. 

While many diners are understanding about timed tables, this policy often runs at odds with pre-pandemic notions of hospitality, where the customer’s experience was put first, no matter what. In busy areas diners now have to fight hard for a coveted reservation and, thanks in part to inflation, are probably going to foot a heftier-than-normal bill. In many cases a restaurant’s time limit is long enough to finish eating and drinking, but knowing you’re up against the clock can dull the glimmer of a much-anticipated meal. 

New York fashion designer Sally Wu told the Wall Street Journal in 2020 that she’d been avoiding restaurants with timed slots. Being told to leave “is not pleasant,” she said. Wu isn’t alone: Others on Twitter also say they’d prefer not to eat at spots with time limits. “It offends me slightly,” wrote one user. 

Talking with my colleagues recently also gave me a sense of just how deep this aversion to reservation windows runs. In 2021 associate cooking editor Antara Sinha snagged a tough reservation at a popular Indian restaurant in New York City—and wanted to order as much of the menu as possible. Toward the end of the meal, a waiter asked Sinha and her friends if they wanted more drinks. Assuming they were fine on time, they ordered another round. “But then we were told to leave, so we just huddled in the cold outside trying to chug full glasses of cocktails,” she says. 

When senior commerce editor MacKenzie Chung Fegan showed up to dinner at a Milanese restaurant in Brooklyn, she wasn’t aware of the two-hour time limit (a friend had made the reservation). The host visited their table and reprimanded Chung Fegan and her friends, saying that another customer had been waiting 25 minutes for the table. “I feel like the pandemic was a shift from, ‘So sorry, we need your table’ to a feeling like the diner is personally trying to put a restaurant out of business by having a long meal,” she says.

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