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Early-Bird Dining Trends Migrating Across America 

Diners of all ages are going out to dinner more often—and much earlier. A major shift from a time when only seniors and those towing small children dared to step inside a restaurant before 8 p.m.--- these days everyone seems to be flocking towards an earlier dining time slot. 

Early dining is a trend that’s migrating across generations and spanning the nation.

According to a recent Yelp study,  fine-dining customers are eating earlier than they did prior to 2020, citing an increase in the percentage of visitors frequenting restaurants from 4-7 p.m. and a decrease in the after 8:00 pm dinner crowd.

And the early dinner trend is not just limited to fine dining. According to Yelp, 10% of all diners were already seated between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. in 2023, doubling from 5% for the same time slot  in 2019. With the everyday consumer choosing to dine earlier than ever,  4 p.m. dinner reservations also doubled from 2019 to 2023. 

Additional proof of the trend comes from rideshare data, with Uber trips to restaurants during the 4 p.m. hour increasing and post 8:00 pm dinner traffic decreasing over 2019 data.  

Restaurants across the US are taking notice of the cultural  time change, with a shift in early dining making 6 p.m. the most popular reservation time, accounting for 20% of reservations.  

Why Diners Are Flocking to Early Bird Slots 

For years,  the hip crowd would never be caught dining out at 5 p.m.  Considered cocktail or happy hour, anyone who dined at this time was presumed to be either an older person taking advantage of “early bird” specials or parents of young children. But in 2024, it appears that we’re all becoming early birds.

Remote Work 

Working from home seems to be a leading contributor toward  the nationwide migration toward earlier dining. With fewer employees commuting to the office every day, diners have more flexibility, allowing them to dine at times that suit their schedules. 

According to the Wall Street Journalrestaurants are now seating 10% of their diners between 2 and 5 p.m.—double the number of seatings at those times in 2019.

Remote work has also led to other lifestyle changes. With many of us no longer eating three meals a day, an increase in later morning and early afternoon restaurant visits and a decrease in early morning dining is also contributing to the shift.  

The post-pandemic workday has also eliminated the cocktail hour that many folks observed when they left the office for the day, with the bridge from work to dinner no longer considered the only “happy hour.”

Entertainment Options

Even in sophisticated cities like New York, long-known as the city that doesn't sleep, earlier dining is a reversal of the trend when dinner was the evening’s entertainment. Now, it’s back to functioning more like a normal meal, with consumers finding that an early dinner reservation offers the opportunity to combine a meal with another evening activity.  

Improved Selection

There are numerous advantages to a late afternoon dinner. One is that the restaurant, having just opened its doors for dinner service, is probably fully stocked with everything on the menu, including specials, leaving customers with ample choices that they might not have later in the night.

Health and Wellness 

Other factors contributing to the shift include a collective consumer focus on wellness, healthy eating, and sober living. 

Eating before 5:00 pm gives the body a chance to digest.  And if you are able to get in a little post-dinner exercise, you start using that fuel before bedtime.

Early dining is also linked to improved sleep.  This is especially true if the last meal of the day includes a glass of wine or a cocktail, giving the liver more time to process the alcohol.

All of these  explanations for the early bird trend seem to be tied to a single thread—a shift in priorities and lifestyle choices that originated in the dark days of lockdown.

How Restaurants Benefit from the Early-Bird Trend

The earlier dinner hour benefits restaurants, as less employees are needed to serve customers. With delivery overtaking the nation, it’s now common for restaurants to close their dining rooms by 9 p.m during the week.

With more and more consumers working (and eating) on their own schedules,  the lull in restaurant business that occurred between lunch and dinner is becoming a thing of the past. 

In addition to earlier dining, there seems to have been a switch in the days-of-the-week that people are heading out to their favorite dining spots. A rise in dinner reservations on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays is occurring as a result of the shorter in-person work week.

Take Away

As with almost everything else, dining times are also changing in 2024, and the shift doesn’t appear to be temporary. As diners continue to adapt to a new normal, restaurants must adapt to a world where early bird dining is no longer so special.

By Eileen Strauss


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