October 16, 2007
Pack It Up, Pack

Road rage. Gym rage. So why do we hear only rarely of restaurant rage? The question arose the other evening as we dined in one of the Sacramento area's finer restaurants. Three tables away, a group of four men apparently thought they were on a boat in the middle of the Sacramento River. They talked loudly, profanely and repetitively, oblivious to everyone else in the restaurant. The gist of their animated conversation had to do with the competency and cost of various tax consultants and divorce attorneys. I didn't hear enough to know why they needed the former, but I had a pretty clear understanding of why the latter might be coming in handy.

From what I could see, neither manager nor server was any more aware of the obnoxious behavior than the boors themselves. The foursome dawdled, finished their meal, and reconvened in the bar, where their boasts and woes weren't nearly as intrusive upon the dining room.

What was up with management? I can only speculate. For one, it was early evening. Only a few other tables were occupied. Managers may have concluded that the offending four would finish their meal and their discussion and move on before the place got really busy. Secondly, the four could be regular guests, and their body language did suggest that they were as comfortable as if they were in their home den. Thus, managers and servers may have been reluctant to tell them to pipe down for fear of losing their support.

So, what's the tactful and effective way for restaurant managers and other guests to deal with behavior that disrupts an otherwise elegant and peaceful dinner?

First, if managers are so dense that don't recognize a disruptive party, other guests should bring it to their attention. "If the room was too cold, wouldn't you say something?" asks former restaurateur Adam Busby, now director of education at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

There is the possibility that the loud foursome was unaware that their exuberance was interfering with the civilized meal other guests were trying to enjoy, and that a polite request by a manager could have resolved the issue immediately, though I didn't see that any such effort was made.

"The smooth way to do it would be to figure out who is the leader of the group. There's always going to be an alpha dog there. A manager could go up to him and say, 'Excuse me, you have a phone call.' Get him away from the table. Tell him that you love him to death, but that his party is getting a little loud. You have to deal one on one, you can't deal with the whole table," advises Washington state restaurant consultant Bill Martin, author of "Restaurant Basics: Why Guests Don't Come Back...And What You Can Do About It."

If the restaurant has a private and unoccupied dining room, or a secluded nook somewhat removed from other patrons, the manager could suggest displomatically that the group move there. Entice them with a round of drinks, suggests Martin. "You also don't want to spoil their good time."

But if space is a problem, and if the offensive party responds like jerks to a managerial request to tone down, the restuarant has no option but to present the group its check and ask it to leave, says Martin. "You have to do what is right for the business, not what is right for you that night, and throw them out. You can't alienate the whole dining room."

Busby concurs, even if the offending guests are regulars who arrive often and spend generously. " Just because they are spending money doesn't give them the right to ruin other diners' moment. You might save a table of four (by not intervening), but you could alienate a dining room of 40, others who subsequently wouldn't go back," Busby says. "Most of us have the grace, manners and upbringing to know what is acceptable behavior and what isn't."

Others need nannies, who in this instance shied from doing right by the rest of the diners.

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