New York’sWaverly Inn is, from all outward appearances, a restaurant, open to the public for the purpose of serving food. But if you’re John Q. Public, just try getting a table —particularly a prime banquette in the star-filled, gossip column chronicled front room. For starters, you can’t call for reservations (there's no phone line for mere mortals). You have to call famous co-owner Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, or the secret phone line administered by one his partners, Emil Warda. Neither will respond unless you’ve been vetted as authentic. If so (and you’re not banished to the rear room Siberia), you’ll get a chance to try the restaurant’s signature $55 truffled mac and cheese within air kissing distance of Gwyneth, Bono, or Graydon himself.
As tough as that reservation is, though, it doesn’t compare to scoring one of the eleven tables at Rao’s, a Harlem institution known as much for its closed door policy as for its ziti. Tables belong to members, and unless you’re Rudy Giuliani, former detective Bo Dietl or a reincarnated Frank Sinatra (he was a big fan), you’re not getting in. Don’t even try calling: the phone message on their advertised phone line says the restaurant is booked all year, and they’re not returning calls, so don’t even bother leaving a number.
Somewhat more accommodating are Thomas Keller’s East and West Coast outposts, Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in Napa Valley — as long as diners get to the phone lines the second they open and book two months in advance. In some cases, incoming guests rely on the restaurants’ relationships with area hotels.
“We generally ask the guest whether they want a French Laundry reservation when we first speak to them,” explains Pam Hugo, assistant to the general manager at nearby Meadowood. “We have a great relationship with the restaurant and even within the 60 day limit, sometimes we get lucky. I’ve seen reservations open an hour before so we get guests’ cell phone numbers and call them. It’s like winning the lottery. They get very excited.”
That a dinner reservation can be compared to a lotto jackpot is a symptom of the restaurant mania that has taken root in recent years. With the rise of chefs as celebrities, and the proliferation of food blogs detailing news and gossip from the restaurant world at a level once reserved for Hollywood stars, there’s even more pressure for the food-obsessed to score a table at the most in demand restaurant, particularly at prime time (7-8 p.m.). And would-be diners will do almost anything to get in.
It’s not uncommon for the staff of Washington D.C.’s six seat and usually sold out minibar to find people banging on the door at 8:30 a.m., trying to beat the 9 a.m. opening of the phone reservation line for its 30-day-in-advance seats. At another hotspot, Chicago’sAlinea, which books up two months in advance for a weekend spot, they’re accustomed to begging and pleading.
“We find it very flattering,” says Julie Hyatt, office manager at the restaurant. “ When people call up, drop the chef’s name [Grant Achatz] and mispronounce it, though, it’s pretty obvious that they’re making it up.”
But like many restaurants, Alinea compiles a waiting list, and would-be diners can get lucky. “Because we’re known nationally, we have guests coming in from other cities,” says Hyatt. “With flight delays at O’Hare, that means we get cancellations and will start calling people on the list.” Prospective diners can try calling the day they want a reservation, preferably between 10 a.m. and noon.
“Babbo [Mario Batali’s Greenwich Village Italian that has been sold out 30 days in advance since its opening in 1998] is our worst nightmare,” he says. “It’s always no. They don’t have a waitlist so if there’s a cancellation, they don’t play favorites. Generally if guests ask for it, we try to make other suggestions.”
Because of these generally closed door policies, restaurant booking web sites have recently emerged, functioning the way ticket brokers do with sold out concerts and sporting events—for a price, that coveted table can be yours. Pascal Riffaud started PrimeTime Tables (www.primetimetables.com) because as the owner of a concierge service, Personal Concierge International, scoring tables for his clients was one of his most in demand services. “I was always frustrated because I couldn’t get tables for good clients when it was last minute,” he says. “So I had to figure out a way to get around it. Businesspeople don’t know where they’re going to be thirty days in advance.”
For either a $450 or $600 annual fee, PrimeTime Tablesclaims it can get you that 8 p.m. table at Babbo or Per Se tomorrow night (or other hot tables in the Hamptons and Philadelphia). Clients browse a list of pre-booked tables along with restaurants that will give them a table every night. Another service, Weekend Epicurelists tables for two for the following Friday and Saturday nights at popular New York restaurants such as L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon and Il Mulino for a flat $35 fee. Another service, Sorted, offers two memberships: roaming for frequent visitors ($1,500 a year) and resident (a higher fee, undisclosed). For that price, members get unlimited reservations at top restaurants (founder and restaurant reviewer Heather Tierney claims a 95 percent success rate) as well as suggestions, news updates and ordering advice.
How do they do it? It’s a closely guarded secret, but one hint may be contained in PrimeTime Tables’ original policy, still in effect with certain restaurants but phased out in others: you’re given an alias for your reservation (ie. it’s not made under your name), suggesting that reservations are made in advance and stockpiled, then resold. Mostly, though, the owners of these services maintain that the key is their longstanding industry contacts.
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But perhaps the fairest approach to getting a tough table is offered by the always booked New York restaurant The Little Owl. Rave reviews for chef Joey Campanaro’s Mediterranean dishes combined with the restaurant’s intimate size (28 seats) means that it’s almost impossible to get a table. But according to one of the restaurant’s owners, Gabriel Stulman, that’s not always true. Because they want to be a neighborhood favorite and allow regulars to come in frequently, they only take reservations for seven of their 10 tables. The other three are for walk-ins, and if they’re occupied, they’ll take your cell phone number and call you when a table opens up. “So there’s always a possibility,” he says. “Seven nights a week.”
We called ten of the toughest tables in the country to try to land a reservation. There were a few happy surprises — read the slideshow for the responses.
How To Score A Tough Table
1. Learn a restaurant’s reservation policy and the time of day the phones open. If it’s 30 or 60 days ahead, clear your calendar and man the phones the minute those lines open.
2. Find out if the restaurant keeps a waiting list. And find out what time they confirm their reservations. Call a minute later.
3. If a restaurant books 30 days ahead, find out if it’s listed on OpenTable.com and get onto the web site at midnight 30 days ahead.
4. Personal contact can mean everything. Make a point of befriending the staff; go into the bar several times and get to know them. And be nice — politeness goes a long way. Being demanding usually gets nothing.
5. Don’t lie. Bragging about your relationship to the chef or lying that you only have 5 days to live won’t get you anywhere, except perhaps permanently blacklisted.
6. Try to be flexible … and avoid the 7-7:30 slots when restaurants generally have the fewest tables available.
7. Unless you’re out for a romantic evening, don’t always go out in twos … sometimes tables for four or six will be more available than one for two.
8. If it’s essential to dine at a certain restaurant that night, pick one with the most tables; obviously there’s a greater chance that one might become available.
9. Tipping a maitre d’ handsomely to get a table works sometimes, but not always. If there really isn’t a table, it won’t help. But if you pick a place with a greater number of tables, one might open up and the maitre d’ will most likely respond favorably to a thank you tip.
10. If your own efforts fail, go to the experts, particularly if you’re trying to score a table in New York. Prime Time Tables (primetimetables.com), Weekend Epicure (weekendepicure.com) and Sorted (sortednyc.com) specialize in that city’s toughest tables. PTT and Sorted are membership only; Weekend Epicure sells reservations on a flat fee basis for tables the following Friday and Saturday nights.