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How to Be On Time for Dinner

Being late is not okay.

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Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it's full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn't even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you'd like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.

Being late to a meal sucks. It inconveniences the restaurant, which relies on reservations to plan the flow of the evening. It hurts the rest of your party, who are either unable to sit or unable to order because they're waiting for you. And having to blurt out I'm sorry I'm late again isn't any fun, either. Beyond the rush and the stress and the shame of lateness, the worst part is the creeping knowledge that it didn't have to be this way. And it doesn't! Here's what punctual people know and accept in their hearts: Bad things happen, and in all likelihood, they will happen to you. Build space into your life for unexpected problems, and you, too, can get to dinner on time.

Make a Reservation

The key to making a reservation is to pick a time you can actually make even if a few things go wrong. Sure, you've left work right at the stroke of 6 p.m. plenty of times, but that doesn't mean you can breeze right into a 6:30 reservation. No. Last minute crises happen at the office and the night of that early reservation, one will happen to you. Instead of arriving late to a 6:30 booking because of an impossible-to-ignore email that arrived at 5:59, just book a 7:30 table. You are one step closer to being on time.

Put the Dinner in Your Calendar

The moment you make a reservation, add it to your calendar — which you absolutely need to have. Your calendar is a promise you make to yourself to keep your word. Double check to make sure you enter the correct time, since this semi-sacred document doesn't work well if you have to second-guess the appointments. Didn't make the reservation yourself? Double check with the person who did. The next-level move is to call the restaurant the day before to make sure you have the right time, an optional but frequently beneficial strategy. Now that you are completely certain when the dinner is happening, you are even closer to arriving on time.

Be Realistic About Transit

Oh, one time you made it from your office to Wicker Park in 10 minutes on the El? Understand that will never happen to you ever again. UberPool will cancel, and a taxi will get stuck in gridlock. Plan to wait the entire 10 minutes for a NYC subway, and 15 minutes for a San Francisco bus, then round those up by five more minutes, and that's how much time you should budget for waiting.

Remember to also budget time for riding. Assume the subway will stand still between stations, the bus will make every damn stop, and your car will hit an unexpected traffic jam. If you're driving your own car, tack on some more time (about 10 minutes) to find a parking space. After rounding up the amount of time you'll spend traveling, work backwards to determine when you need to leave. Don't shave off any of those extra minutes, either. If you have trouble remembering when to leave, use the text reminder function in your calendar to send you a text at that time. Budget a ton of time for travel and schedule when you leave, and you will be much less likely to arrive late.

Avoid Last-Minute Dithering

It's the day of the dinner! Here are some things that 100% will make you late: Going home to change your clothes, changing your clothes at the office, changing your clothes anywhere. Don't change your clothes before dinner. Your dining companions should not have to wait through your decision paralysis over a tie, dress, belt, shoe, purse, or cufflink. Instead, wear your restaurant outfit to work and just do your best to not stain it. If you wear makeup like lipstick, bring one lipstick to work with you. That way you can give yourself a refresh before heading out without having to decide which lipstick to use. Limiting last-minute decisions about anything appearance-related sharply reduces the likelihood that you will get distracted and miss the designated leave time. Make decisions in advance, rest easy knowing you already look good — and are on time.

Use an Early Warning System

Nobody expects you to arrive to every single dinner on time. (Unless, of course, we are talking about me, expecting extreme punctuality of myself.) But there is no excuse to leave people wondering where you are given that cellphones exist. If all else fails, and you are still running late, text your dining companion(s) as soon as you realize arriving on time might not be possible. This might mean texting if you miss leaving when you planned to, or before getting into the car to drive. Whatever you do, don't wait until it's already 7:30 to say you're running late for a 7:30 reservation. Let's be honest: you knew you were late way before then.

Being Early Is the Greatest

So what happens when you do actually arrive on time? Blissfully little. You aren't the last one to the table. You don't have to apologize before even saying hello. Sometimes you're even early, which is literally the best thing ever. You have time to go to the restroom to give yourself a once over in the mirror. You have time to fight to the bar for a drink. The restaurant is your oyster and you have not a stress in the world.

Unless your dining companion is late. Why is their time more precious than yours, you'll wonder. Do they want to have dinner with you at all? Do you want to have dinner with them, if you have to wait for the privilege of their company? Reasonable questions, all. It took work and effort (see above) for you to arrive on time, and you know anyone else can do it too.

Hillary Dixler is Eater's senior reports editor and enjoys being on time to dinner.
Photo Illustration: Ivan V. Lebedev / Shutterstock


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