Ask The Salty Waitress: My Food Came Out Suspiciously Early

Dear Salty: I took my girlfriend out for dinner for Valentine's Day to a restaurant known for its signature fried chicken. I ordered it (she got a pasta dish) and so we were surprised when the chicken showed up early. Like, disturbingly early. Even before my girlfriend's pasta.

It didn't seem to be enough time to prepare fried chicken, so I suspected the dish was warmed up from being fried hours early, or was perhaps a mistaken order meant for someone else. When I confronted the server about it though, he said no, it just came out early.

Well, it messed with the cadence of our meal—I felt like I was being rushed. It was supposed to be a relaxed romantic night out, and our dinner was over in an hour and 15. (I even thought about whether I should request the chicken be taken off our bill, but ultimately thought better.) 

Salty, purveyor of all things restaurant: Am I being paranoid or does something seem all-the-way wrong here?

Irate in Iowa

Dear Irate,

Oh, something's in the wrong here, all right. Look around the world today, buddy. If getting your food too quickly is your biggest problem, I would trade my comfortable daytime heels with you in a second, mmmkay?

Your question piqued my interest enough to wonder what actually did happen here. I talked to a restaurant manager friend whose place is also renowned for their fried chicken. He agrees, "Getting your food too early is a weird thing to complain about."

Still, he points out, "There's definitely a flow that customers expect." That schedule usually plays out as follows: "People should come in, order their drinks, get their drinks, keep looking at the menu, get appetizers, clear plates, then people should get their food." Before the bill comes at least, there's nothing in it for the restaurant to bulldoze you through your meal. "We don't want to rush people, especially in the middle of the meal," for one very important reason: "We want them to order a second round of drinks!" That second (or third) round of wine and cocktails can keep amping up the dinner bill by about $30 a shot, making both the to-be-tipped server and the restaurant happy. "It's in our best interest to make that happen," my industry friend emphasizes.

Besides, most restaurants have turnaround times programmed into their reservation system. My friend estimated the following: 75 minutes for a two-top (that's restaurant parlance for "table for two"), 90 minutes to an hour forty-five for a four-top, and a six- to eight-top can get a whole two hours. If your meal seemed shorter than that, there's nothing in it for the restaurant to knock their whole reservations schedule out of whack, so go ahead and take your time (within reason).

So... what likely did happen here? My friend notes his establishment is constantly revising their fried chicken method, so now it comes out faster than it used to. Maybe your place had improved its chicken technology since the last time you went there? Perhaps. It was also Valentine's Day, so it's possible that the kitchen got slammed, leaded to the out-of-whack food serving (I'm with you on being upset that the entrées didn't come out together. Now that's annoying, especially during a hopefully romantic dinner).

What were your options? You could have asked the server to keep the chicken warm until your date's entrée was ready also (hopefully it didn't trail behind more than a few minutes). You could have eaten reallllllllly slowly. If nothing else about the meal suggested the restaurant was rushing you (no one brought your coats out from coat check and laid then on the back of your chairs or anything, right?) and you like the place in general, I would write it off as a moment of unfortunate timing. None of us are perfect, not even the saltiest among us. If the restaurant had been wise, they would have comped you a dessert or something to hopefully stay in your good graces.

But these conspiracy theories about other people's food or warmed-over chicken? I'm hoping this is just an isolated incident for you. Not saying that either of these things isn't possible, but when you go out to a place you like, you can give them the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, since this incident happened several days ago now, hopefully somehow you have found the strength to pull yourself together and move on after this harrowing too-early-food incident. You got guts, kid.