It is a problem that has afflicted the restaurant business longer than steak and potatoes. The customer wants a table on a Saturday night. The restaurateur wants the business, but the reservation book shows that all the tables are taken.
If the restaurant takes the reservation and everybody shows up, then customers have to wait to be seated and they get steamed.
If the restaurant refuses the reservation, and some other parties don't show up, then the restaurant has an empty table at prime time Saturday night. It loses money. And losing money gets the restaurant owner steamed.
I call it the Saturday night shuffle. And recently I talked to a handful of area owners and chefs in fine dining establishments about how they handle it. Around Baltimore it is primarily a one-night problem. Restaurants do a respectable business on Friday and Sunday nights, but on Saturday night, from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., restaurant tables are at a premium.
Most of the restaurant owners said that they overbook. Experience has taught them that they must take more reservations than they have seats. The theory is that a certain percentage of people who make reservations will not show. But the central question is: How many won't show?
Summer means people dine later in the evening. Rain means everybody will be slow arriving. Snow means all bets are off. It is a guessing game, albeit a sophisticated one.
A few months ago, for instance, the 125-seat Milton Inn used to book about 200 reservations for Saturday night. This number, according to chef Mark Henry, made the pace too hectic. So the Saturday night reservation limit was pushed down to around 160. At this level, Henry figured the restaurant would be full, and the customers would be well served.
That is not how it worked. Instead of calling to cancel the reservations, some folks just didn't show. Their once choice tables became empty ones.
Now, Henry said, the number of Saturday night reservations on "the sheet" at the Milton Inn is climbing back toward its former high.
Over at the 155-seat Polo Grill, owner Lenny Kaplan said he overbooks by "10 to 20 per cent" on a normal Saturday night to compensate for the no-shows.
"If you get lucky," Kaplan said, "nobody waits for a table."
If you don't get lucky, if everybody shows as promised or if they show up late, then you have problems, said Kaplan, a veteran of 33 years in the Baltimore restaurant business.
When customers wait, you issue apologies, he said. Then you pass out hors d'oeuvres, and finally you send out complimentary drinks.
While other nights of the week might offer a chance for a more leisurely meal, Saturday night dining still, according to Kaplan, has a big social appeal here.
"People in Baltimore like to go out on Saturday night and see everybody," he said.
At Linwood's Cafe, assistant manager Ruth Kirby said the 120-seat Owings Mills restaurant has cut down on the number of no-shows by calling reservation holders on the preceding Friday night to confirm their Saturday reservations.
The drawback to this procedure, restaurateurs say, is finding staffer who is free for full-time phone duty. Moreover, confirming reservations cuts down on no-shows, but it does not eliminate them.
One restaurateur who told me he had little trouble with no-shows was Benny Gordon, chef and owner of the Restaurant 2110, a 50-seat establishment on North Charles Street.
"We're so small -- and have so many regulars -- people tend to show up when they say they will," Gordon said.
Gordon also said that Thursday and Sunday nights were beginning to be as busy at his restaurant as Saturday nights, a trend he likes.
"On a Saturday night people have to go somewhere. They are in and out. But on weeknights, they sit around and talk," Gordon said. "And the checks get bigger."
After listening to the restaurateurs talk about Saturday night shuffle, I made myself a few promises.
First, if I have a Saturday night reservation I can't keep, I promise to call the restaurant and tell the staff. They do keep track.
Secondly, if I say 7:30 p.m., I will be there on time. If everybody is 30 minutes late, the restaurant system gets backed up, and the whole Saturday night shuffle slows down.
And finally, on the whole, I would rather eat out on a Thursday.