Compared to sit-down dining, counter service seems relatively straightforward. The vague rules which dictate who should approach the table when don't apply when the diner's his own host, waiter and busser.
But it turns out there are sticky restaurant etiquette issues surrounding even the counter service model, as I realized at The Wandering Goose, the new biscuit house atop Capitol Hill that's the subject of this week's review.
There are 30 seats at The Wandering Goose, but there should probably be fewer: The tables are tucked in so tightly that claiming a spot on the benches against the wall is a decision with lasting consequences. It's nearly impossible to sidle out once seated. Still, the cramped arrangement is understandable: Every time I ate in the cafe, almost every table was taken. The scarcity of seats means many customers secure a table before placing an order, a stunt which infuriated one of my review companions.
"You have to order first," decreed Weekly music editor Chris Kornelis, who still has hard feelings about an incident at Salumi when he and his sandwich were confronted by a slew of saved seats.
Interestingly, the question of "which comes first, the order or the table?" is less compelling in warmer places, since diners aren't equipped with the scarves, hats and coats which handily serve as makeshift reservation placards. Few diners, no matter how hurried, are likely to leave their purses or wallets unattended.
Unlike Kornelis, I'm sympathetic to the folks who nab a table before reaching the register. The room at Wandering Goose is arranged so customers walk between the two rows of tables on their way to the counter; sequentially, it makes sense to deal with the seating first. But I understand how what looks logical to one diner could look like skipping the line to another. If a new arrival took the restaurant's only vacant table while Kornelis was ordering a biscuit, he'd have to wait longer for a seat - even though his meal's likely to be ready first.
When more than one table is available, the likelihood of frustration remains high. In most restaurants, there's no communal agreement about which table you should choose when presented with half a dozen options. For example, if there are two diners in your party, should you plop down at the only available two-top? While that decision might be appreciated by the party of four which next comes through the door, what if the two-top is wedged between two occupied tables? Is it preferable to defer to the privacy of those who've already started eating? (Trust me, you'll overthink these issues too while you're waiting for your bowl of gumbo.)
The Wandering Goose could sidestep these thorny issues by doing away with counter service: I think the restaurant would operate better if only coffee and baked good purchases were transacted at the counter. But that's one of my very few complaints about the cafe, which is absolutely worth a visit - assuming you can score a table. You'll find the full review here, and a slideshow from Kevin Casey will be posted shortly.