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"Dear Janice,

"We need your opinion. Recently, 10 of us dined at a suburban restaurant. We arrived at 6 p.m. for our reservation and were seated promptly. We ordered drinks, then appetizers. When the appetizers arrived, we ordered dinner. After dinner we all ordered coffee and dessert.

"Our waiter was superb. At around 8:15 p.m., as we were halfway through our coffee, the manager approached us and told us we had exceeded our two-hour limit and asked if we could kindly settle up the bill. She went to say that other people were waiting for our table. We were shocked. It ruined our evening.

"And as we were leaving, we didn't see any large party waiting for a table. We've gone out to dinner as a large group for a few years now and this is the first time this has ever happened.

"Were they out of line? My cousin emailed the owners and their reply was basically ‘too bad, it's our policy.' I wrote a letter voicing my opinion and never received an answer.

"Please advise on how we should have handled this. Is more than two hours too long for a large party?"

– Michael B.

It sounds to me, Michael, like this whole thing was handled badly. It's a tough business, and many restaurants like to (in some cases, must) turn tables in order to make a profit. But if indeed this place has time restrictions, you should have been advised of that fact when you made the reservation.

For a restaurateur, getting diners to vacate can be a perpetual problem. Still, aside from clearing the table down to the salt and pepper shakers and plunking down the check, there are ways to handle it.

With a nod to Disney as well as to that "practically perfect" nanny who traveled by umbrella, "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

Two hours might seem to be a reasonable amount of time to eat dinner, but there were 10 of you. If the place was getting antsy, someone could have made the move more pleasant. A savvy restaurateur knows that an offer of a drink or cup of coffee in the bar can sweeten almost any disposition. After all, the diners were spending what sounds like a respectable amount of money, so why would you want to make them mad?

So you got up and left. And by the way, the restaurant's lack of sympathy doesn't speak well of its management. Obviously, you won't be going back.

***

No gifts required

"Hi Janice,

"I am at a loss for a gift idea and wondered if you might have some suggestions. We have been invited to dinner at a restaurant by the owners. Normally, we would contribute to the meal by bringing a dish, dessert or wine. They have it all at their restaurant. Do you have any ideas what we might bring to show our appreciation?"

– Marion R.

You don't have to bring anything, Marion, although it's a nice thought. There is nothing wrong with presenting a bottle of wine for personal use.

But, if you think they would enjoy it, what about a book about the restaurant business? "Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York," by William Grimes (Northpoint) is written by a former restaurant reviewer who charts an edible course from the early 19th century to today. Obviously it centers on Manhattan, but any restaurant person would be fascinated. I was.

Even better and easier to read is "The Tummy Trilogy," by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin. It is a compilation of three of his books about food – "American Fried," "Alice, Let's Eat" and "Third Helpings" – short pieces, wonderfully funny. It was published in 1994 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, but boy does it hold up well.

Both books are available in paperback.


Send your questions and comments about dining out to Janice Okun at janiceokun@yahoo.com. She will respond ?in this column.