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When at a restaurant with a group of friends (3 or more), and one person is running late, what is the etiquette around ordering before everyone has arrived?

Considering that with an especially large group (6+), we will be taking up a fairly large table at the restaurant.

In the past, we've had some friends get upset that we are nearly done eating by the time their food has arrived, as they feel pressured to finish eating quickly. And they can't talk much during the meal because they have their mouth full for most of it.

(The 1-on-1 version of this question is here: Is it acceptable to order food at a restaurant if the person you are meeting is late?)

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    These people get upset despite the fact they are the ones late? Do they not think that the other members of the group would be upset at them? – Rory Alsop Sep 14 '17 at 22:51
  • This is going to be very dependent on location and the specifics of relationship and the reason for the meet-up. I don't think you're going to get a one-size-fits-all type answer. – StephenG Sep 15 '17 at 21:08
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Exact time is somewhat dependant on situation, but if everyone is there and one person is 20+ minutes late, you should just order. If you want to be nice about it you can call them and say something like:

We are ordering now, do you know what you want? We could order for you as well

That lets them know what you're up to so that it isn't an unpleasant surprise, and it could save time as their food would be already waiting for them when they arrive

  • My father has struggled with timeliness all of his life; as a result, I've been on the flipside of this question on numerous occasions. Since cell phones, our process has been to call ahead to the people waiting around the time we were supposed to have arrived, let them know our orders and our ETA. One person driving can't do this; they need to focus on driving. But when they've had a passenger who can work a phone and has the right numbers on their phone, it seems to me like it would be the thing to do. – Ed Grimm Mar 15 at 5:17
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For a big group, I think waiting is expected. How long, though, is dependent on a lot of things.

Is the person habitually late? Is the restaurant filled to capacity? Do some members of the party have a definite time frame (have to be somewhere else after dinner)? Is the restaurant staff looking askance at your table? Have you asked the server if the table is reserved after your party? What's the custom in your country? (I'm in the US.)

We dine out as a family of adults often, and have never ordered dinner without someone there. Drinks, absolutely. Appetizers, yes, if they're running pretty late (>20 min.) In that case, they can skip appetizers and order the main course at the same time you do.

In this age of cell phones, it's easy to get an idea of how soon the party expects to be there, and to plan accordingly.

I think @Maxim's suggestion is lovely.

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    Wow, that's so interesting! My experience is the exact opposite. Maybe it's because you're talking about family? Heck, half the restaurants in Austin refuse to seat incomplete parties to prevent this. – Catija Sep 15 '17 at 0:41
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    @Catija I've never encountered that here in Germany. The first person to arrive will usually be seated at the reserved table, if you are being seated by restaurant staff at all and aren't just expected or compelled to find a free table for yourself! ("Being seated" only seems to occurs about two fancyness-tiers up around here in comparison to the US). – Alexander Kosubek Sep 15 '17 at 6:57
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    In Australia, there are a few restaurants that require the whole party to be present, but for the most part, they will seat you once the first person arrives. – Fodder Sep 15 '17 at 10:32
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    I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but we rarely order appetisers as a main is more than enough food for one person. I had never thought to ask the server if the table was reserved after us - it would make me a lot less anxious if I knew it wasn't. – Fodder Sep 15 '17 at 10:35
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    Yeah, most restaurants in Austin have at least some wait at dinner and many do at lunch. A lot of them also don't take reservations @AlexanderKosubek. It's actually pretty uncommon to make a reservation here with a party under 6 or so. Most of the time you just show up and wait for a table. But they also expect quick turnover of tables. They don't want people sitting there for more than 1.5 hours, two at the most, so waiting to order for more than 10 minutes or so is really disruptive of their turnover. – Catija Sep 15 '17 at 15:18
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In a one-on-one situation, the whole reason you're at the restaurant is to share a meal with them, so it makes sense to wait. With a larger group, the math doesn't really support several people being inconvenienced to accommodate one person. Etiquette does require some subordination of math to politeness, but within limits. As the group gets larger, it becomes more and more unreasonable for the one person to expect the rest to wait. It's perfectly reasonable for the friend to be annoyed at situation of everyone else already having eaten, but unreasonable for them to be annoyed at the people for having done so.

I think that part of the intention of appetizers is to address this sort of issue: you can still have something to snack on and have your main meal when the rest of your party arrives. If your friend can give a solid ETA, the restaurant might be willing to take their order so the food will be ready when they arrive. If not, it might still be useful to tell your server what you plan on ordering, even if you don't want it served immediately, and ask what accommodations can be made once the friend arrives.

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As per all my answers here, this is based on what I'd do. That may or may not be useful to actual humans with social skills :-)

This is one situation where it's actually useful to be diabetic. You can just claim that, for medical reasons, you need to eat at a specific time or risk going into a hypoglycemic coma and dying :-)

For one-on-ones, the whole point of the meal is to share it with the other person, so I'd wait as long as necessary, perhaps ordering bread or small entrees to keep yourself going. Then, when they arrive, make it clear you just needed some snacky stuff and then get into ordering the real meal.

For a larger group, the point is to share time with not the entire group, since that's difficult enough even if they're all present. Rather, it's to share time with various people or sub-groups within the group, as needed or desired.

So I'd tend wait a while for everyone to arrive (say about 15 minutes tops) and then order. I don't consider the cutoff time to be rude since:

  • someone almost certainly set a specific time for the get-together, which was known by everyone;
  • the people actually running late are being rude (if intentional);
  • or they should not mind if you order (if not intentional).

In any case, there's no requirement that you go your meal like a starved pack animal, you can adjust your eating speed so that hopefully you won't be finished before they arrive. Even if everyone started together, there would be situations where some would finish first (a friend of mine almost choked on a chicken bone when young and therefore eats notoriously slow, so we were often waiting around for him to finish).

If, after your small wait and slower eating speed, they still arrive late, maybe next time they'll plan better :-)

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