Does Sitting Down at a Restaurant Mean You Have to Stay?

March 19 2009, 2:39 PM

The server placed a water glass in front of me before I acknowledged that I should have left Phoenician Kabob just after I had entered. The signs were clear from the beginning: A lone woman sat at the counter and another couple were the only diners in the dark Middle Eastern eatery on Colfax Avenue. But I had a glass of water, and it was too late to walk to the register and order takeout. Had I recognized earlier, say, after looking at the menu, that my hummus shawarma would be best eaten at a City Park picnic table, I would have changed my order and left. I'm not, after all, opposed to leaving a restaurant I've entered or even been seated at if the reasons are right.

Several times while on vacation, I've followed a guidebook to an unknown restaurant and found myself looking at a menu that only offers burritos when I want a taco, or whose cocktails are $5 more than the $7 I'd hoped to pay. In those cases, in an unknown land, water glass or not, I close my menu and walk out. In my home city, though, I don't feel quite as liberated. I'll only leave a Denver restaurant if it's run out of the dish I've come to eat, or if it's unkempt and off-putting. Local dining maven Gabby Gourmet generally agrees with this approach, acknowledging that while it's rare for a diner to leave, if a restaurant is very expensive or if the waitstaff is obviously mistreating a diner, he's entitled to get up and go. Chefs, though, see things a bit differently. "Sometimes people just get up and go. It happens in every restaurant," says Mary Nguyen, owner and chef of Parallel 17. "Whenever it happens, we assume that we did something wrong." Nguyen encourages diners to communicate. If they simply want a different experience--for example, pizza, instead of the Vietnamese fare Parallel 17 serves--she suggests telling the restaurant that you're looking for something else but will be back in the future. Troy Guard, chef and owner of the soon-to-open TAG on Larimer Square, also appreciates this open communication. If a diner lets Guard know why he's leaving, the chef can try to compensate for a bad experience. "I want you to leave happy. I'll buy you a drink if I need to," Guard says. So while it's hard to deny a diner's right to leave, the question still remains: Should he leave? Even if there's a water glass?

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