Before I was a full-time food writer, I was an IT consultant who specialized in the oil and gas industry. After a long morning of beating software into submission, going out to lunch was a treasured part of the day — when I was able to do so, that is.
When I could get away with leaving and the weather was nice, I’d briskly walk in the sunshine to a nearby restaurant. Some days I was battling a crisis or just didn’t have the time to go, but when I could, I found it psychologically freeing. It was like pushing the reset button on my brain. When I got back to work, I often had new ideas on how to troubleshoot persnickety technical issues and as long there weren’t new ones, the afternoon seemed to just zip by.
It was good for building professional relationships, too. Breaking bread with co-workers is a great way to enrich work life. It wasn’t too long before the foodies in the office found each other and made the occasional jaunt out to lunch.
There was one type of situation, though, that led to discomfort and regret: ending up at a restaurant where lunch dragged on for more than an hour. This is why people are reluctant to grab more than fast food for lunch or leave their offices at all during the workday. Many restaurants don’t seem to understand that people want to have a nice meal but can’t afford to dawdle at the table.
One lunch with co-workers stretched into a two-hour ordeal. The longer we sat, the longer the feelings of mortification, anxiety and regret for choosing that particular restaurant grew. We couldn't wait to race back to the office by the end — and hoped none of us were going to be confronted with a problem or an unhappy person when we got there.
Thinking that the sluggish experience was just a fluke, I returned a few months later. It still took nearly as long. I spoke with a manager and said in the most pleasant, I'm-trying-to-be-helpful tone I could muster, “If you’re going to offer lunch, you’ve really got to get people in and out of here faster.” She shrugged and said, “That’s just not the kind of experience we offer.”
I never returned for lunch again and, for that matter, didn't go back for dinner for a long time, either.
Soon after the second debacle, the restaurant stopped offering lunch altogether. Not too much longer after that, it closed.
I’ve never understood why servers don’t ask customers if there is a time constraint and guide the experience accordingly. It's something restaurants near the Theatre District are well-versed in. They understand that diners who come in the early evening have a show to catch, and offer a set menu and expedited service to get them out the door.
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Perhaps one of the most ignored tenets of good service is "know your customer." Some dishes take more time to prepare than others, and if it’s a “ladies who lunch” situation or someone has the day off, by all means, the leisurely experience is entirely called for.
Some restaurants are savvy and feature an express lunch. Those are pretty safe bets for businesspeople. French restaurants, especially, often offer reasonably priced two- or three-course prix fixe meals. The chefs have the ingredients prepped ahead of time and the dishes march out of the kitchen in a prompt and orderly fashion.
Houston restaurants that start offering lunch often end up discontinuing it because of lack of business. The other side of that coin is that for diners with jobs, lunchtime is a risk of tedium, frustration and embarrassment. Not enough restaurants are sufficiently mitigating the problem.
Shared meals are a cultural pillar of society, but they didn’t develop as we know them simply because people all get hungry at the same time. For Houston to have a strong lunchtime culture, restaurants are going to have to do their part in building it and adjusting it to their customers’ needs.