Benihana: A Restaurant Reviewed Without Eating Any Food
This may be one of the shortest restaurant reviews on record. Brief, because it's difficult to write a comprehensive review when you don't even get a chance to sit down for dinner. But how a restaurant treats its customers while you're waiting for a table sets the atmosphere for the entire dinner -- or in our case, not-the-dinner.
We had planned to take my mother-in-law, Florence, out to celebrate her 84th birthday at Benihana in Bethesda, Maryland. There were going to be twelve for dinner, and we made an early-ish reservation for 6:30pm, to make the evening more comfortable for Florence, who likes to get to sleep early.
My family of four arrived first, at about 6:25pm. We were told by the greeter that we couldn't be seated until everyone in our party was here, and we were ushered into the lounge, to wait and have a drink. About 5 minutes later, almost exactly at 6:30pm, Florence and her husband arrived, and now we were six. My wife, Peggy, asked the host if we could be seated so that her 84-year-old mother could be comfortable, but once again, we were told, "no," policy is that parties can't be seated until everyone has arrived. Even if you have a reservation.
The host offered to let us all sit in the lounge, but Peggy declined on her mother's behalf, because she didn't want her mother to have to get up, walk to the lounge, sit in a chair there, and then have to get up again to be seated at a table.
Moments later Peggy's brother and his family walked in, making our assemblage 10 -- we were almost all here. Peggy asked the host --pleaded with the host-- please let us sit at a table, because her 84-year-old mother is very uncomfortable sitting on the ottoman-style chair with no back that's in the waiting area. No: all parties must be complete before you can be seated.
A couple of minutes after that, at about 6:40pm, the final two of our group of twelve arrived. Table, please, Peggy asked? We were told it would be a few more minutes. Not wanting to risk those few more minutes turning into 10 or possibly 20 or more minutes, we left, went to Florence's house, and had a relaxing, though not as celebratory, birthday dinner.
Some years ago, I was at a restaurant where we were delayed at being seated. The host came over to our group, apologized and offered us all free drinks while we waited. That's nice, and smart business, too.
But to keep an 84 year-old woman waiting because it's policy is dumb. It's uncaring, unthinking. When I started this review, I told myself that I'd stick to just the facts, relating only the time line and letting readers judge for themselves about Benihana. But now that I'm going over the facts again, my blood's boiling. We didn't make a scene at the restaurant, but Peggy did tell the host clearly that her mother needed to be seated. They ignored her.
I understand the restaurant's perspective -- they want to make sure that they don't have empty chairs where paying customers could be. But with 10 out of our group of 12 on hand, and one person who was clearly in need of being seated, the restaurant should have seated us.
Let me add a few additional notes. When Peggy made the reservation for 12 nobody told her that we wouldn't be able to be seated until everyone had arrived. (And there's no mention of that policy on Benihana's website, which does say, "Although reservations are not required, they are recommended.") Had we known that, we either would have guided Peggy's mother to arrive last, or we would have made a reservation somewhere else. As diners we've all encountered the policy where you can't be seated until everyone arrives, but that usually applies just to walk-ins, not to reservations. Otherwise what's the point of having a reservation? If Benihana's worried about no-shows, then they can consider doing what some restaurants now do: require a credit card deposit for large groups. But to refuse to seat an 84 year-old, who not only was tired and uncomfortable in the restaurant's waiting area, but who looked that way, too, is unfair and unethical.
7935 Wisconsin Avenue
UPDATE: My wife wrote to the president of Benihana. He wrote back a letter of apology, and included a gift of dinner for four at Benihana and two Benihana coffee mugs. In the real world, people do make mistakes, as did the greeter at the Bethesda Benihana. But it's how you fix those mistakes that often matters most. And Benihana did make amends.
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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada