Photo: Cole Saladino, Design: Jay Sprogell
Food & Drink

Why 5:30 Is the Ultimate Dining Time

I want to let you in on a little secret: Everyone clamoring for a 7pm or 8pm dinner reservation is an idiot. It might seem like the optimal time to dine -- not too early, not too late, very Goldilocks in nature -- but it’s actually one of the worst times to visit a restaurant. The time everyone should actually be fighting over 5:30pm. No, seriously.

I want to let you in on a little secret: Everyone clamoring for a 7pm or 8pm dinner reservation is an idiot. It might seem like the optimal time to dine -- not too early, not too late, very Goldilocks in nature -- but it’s actually one of the worst times to visit a restaurant. The time everyone should actually be fighting over 5:30pm. No, seriously.

Stick with me here. It might seem like the time only your grandma and grandpa would prefer, but in their infinite wisdom earned by living many decades of life, they are also right about eating dinner at 5:30. I have spent many months crisscrossing the country, eating at hundreds of restaurants to put together lists like this, and I can say the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the early bird really does get the worm, which in this case means the early diner really gets the better meal.

The first step to enjoying a dinner out is to actually get a table. As restaurant culture grows more and more pervasive, it is becoming harder and harder to get seats at beloved or deeply trendy spots. Call a popular spot for seats, especially for a Friday or Saturday night, and it will be nearly impossible to snag a table for 7 or 8 unless you’ve somehow managed to call months in advance. (But who really knows what they will want for dinner nine Fridays from now?) More often than not, these restaurants will have a 5:30 seat available, however. And if they don’t take reservations, walking in at 5:30 means they will likely be able to seat you right away. Walk in at 7pm and you might not be eating until 9pm at the earliest. Who doesn’t want the freedom to eat wherever they want to eat?

People often compare the workings of a restaurant to a finely choreographed dance, and if that really is the case, wouldn’t you want to watch a performance where the dancers are not tired? Dining at 5:30 has several advantages -- the restaurant’s staff being at their freshest might be the greatest one. Most restaurants begin their dinner service around 5pm, which means by 5:30, your server has maybe helped a handful of tables. They are warmed-up, but not yet exhausted. This means they have time to answer every single one of your questions about a menu because they aren’t trying to manage 18 different tables at various stages of their meal at the same time. Not-yet-exhausted servers means they likely will not forget anything like a refill of mayo for your fries or the two extra forks you want so you can all split the linguini you ordered, even though everyone at the table is technically on the keto diet.

The same goes for the kitchen staff. They aren’t 90 orders deep into the night, meaning they aren’t running behind. Your food will more often than not, come out quickly, and exactly as your ordered it. There is nothing worse than sitting down to dinner at 7, starving, and then having to wait an hour for your meal to finally hit the table because the kitchen is so slammed. Eating at 5:30 also guarantees that the kitchen is not out of any ingredient yet, which means you can get a double order of the squid special that you’ve been eyeing and no one will tell you those dreaded words, “Sorry, we no longer have that.”

It’s basically the restaurant equivalent of flying business class instead of economy.

Dining at 5:30 not only means that you get to eat exactly what you want to eat, but it also means you get to hear your dining companions. As restaurants have moved away from the white tablecloth model and become more relaxed and casual spaces with minimalist cement walls and wooden benches, they have become louder and louder. If you try to dine at a packed restaurant when it is in full swing, it’s likely that you are going to strain to hear your companions, shouting “What?” between every other bite. At 5:30, dining rooms are not completely empty -- also a weirdly disarming scenario -- but they are not overly full. It’s easy to carry on a conversation without feeling like you might lose your voice the next day. And you aren’t forced to overhear the conversation of the table next to you because so many diners are packed in so tight. It’s basically the restaurant equivalent of flying business class instead of economy.

And though this may be the most cringe-worthy reason, in this heavily Instagrammed world, dining at 5:30 means you also have access to the best light. It’s no secret that food looks better when photographed in natural light, but eat at 7 or 8 and it’s most likely going to be dark outside, which means you are left to either use the flash on your phone to take a photo (something most people cannot pull off) or you just can’t post a picture of your meal because it is too dim. The added bonus of the restaurant being emptier at 5:30 is that there are fewer people in the dining room to witness you standing in a ridiculous pose or running your plate over from the table to the counter by the large window to get that Instagram-worthy photo.

Best of all, dining at 5:30 means you can have a two-hour long leisurely dinner and still have the rest of your night left ahead of you. It means that not only did you get to go out to eat, you get to also binge-watch four episodes the best new show on Netflix, or hit Trader Joe’s to purchase several new snacks, or KonMari your your closet and maybe your kitchen and still be in bed by midnight at the latest. Dining at 5:30 -- the ultimate productivity hack.

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Khushbu Shah is a senior food editor at Thrillist and will eat with you at 5:30 p.m. any day. See her well-lit Instagram photos @khushandoj.