9 Tricks for Getting a Table (and Being a VIP) at Hot Restaurants

89 Comments


How do you skip the line and get the corner table? (photo: Thomas Hawk)

An evening out should be special, especially if it’s an expensive evening.

But too often it’s a disappointment. Does the following scenario sound familiar? After weeks of trying to score a reservation at that new restaurant that just got a great review, you finally get one – only to find yourself waiting until 9pm for the table you were promised at 8pm. When you’re finally seated, you find yourself waiting – for a drink, for your food, for your check, even for your coat.

It might be somewhat tolerable if you looked around and saw that everyone was treated the same, but that’s rarely the case.

There always seems to be at least one table getting the VIP treatment. It’s like a little oasis: The diners aren’t kept waiting; the waiters are particularly attentive; and the chef may even come out to say hello or send over some extra desserts at the end. Who doesn’t want to be treated like that?

I’m not fussy and I’m not high maintenance. I think those are two reasons I stumbled upon the secrets of being treated like a VIP…

For years, I was editor in chief of a publishing house and edited cookbooks by some of the world’s best chefs – so my friends always assumed that’s why I got treated so well. But the truth is – the restaurants where I was treated best never knew what I did for a living. Trust me: If you get pitched books all day, the last thing you want is to be pitched books over dinner.

Here are 9 tips for becoming a VIP who skips lines and gets tables. Test even a few and you’ll almost always get amazing treatment at the very restaurants others can barely get into.

1. Start at the bar. Try having a meal there. Chat with the bartender a bit; introduce yourself to the Maitre d’ and get her or his card. Ask if the owner is around and introduce yourself to her or him.

2. Ask the waiter to ask the chef two questions: First, What does everyone order, and Second, what does almost no one order but the chef thinks everyone should. Then order them both. Chefs want to show off their popular dishes, but often have an item on the menu they are really proud of, and really want people to try. I first did this at The Slanted Door in San Francisco. A cook actually came out to say hello because he thought it was so unusual.

3. Be one of the first customers. If you read local food-blogs, or visit sites like chow.com or zagat.com, you’ll know what’s opening and who’s opening it. If it sounds good, go. Businesses frame their first bucks and treasure their first customers.

4. If you like it, come back for two more meals that very week. I went to a great NYC restaurant called Union Pacific for lunch the week it opened. I loved it and came back for dinner that night, lunch the next day, and dinner later that week. They never forgot me. After Union Pacific became white hot, I could score a reservation any time I wanted – even if I hadn’t been there for months. Even though the restaurant is sadly gone, I’ve kept up with some of the alums – and they now work in some of the city’s best restaurants.

5. Be forgiving. Even VIPs sometimes have to wait, get spilled on, or get the wrong dish. VIPs are often simply people who were good sports when all didn’t go as planned. You don’t have to be a milquetoast – but if the restaurant knows it messed up, you can score major points by not making a big deal about it or using it as an excuse to try to score freebies.

6. Send compliments to the chef – especially when you are specific about what you like. I know it sounds dorky – but it’s almost always appreciated. If you really love the place, send a note to the chef. Very few people do this.

7. Tip 25% if you like the place and got pretty good service. At very fancy restaurants, tip the Maitre d’ too. If you can’t afford to tip properly, then you can’t afford that restaurant. Go someplace you can afford.

8. Choose the cheapest wine. Or choose a wine you know and like. Or one that intrigues you. Or just ask for help. But don’t choose the second cheapest wine, unless it’s a wine you know and like. (The cheapest is often a good, smart value; the second cheapest is sometimes a sucker’s play – a bad deal put specifically on the wine list for all the people who don’t know wine, don’t want to ask, but don’t want to look cheap by ordering the cheapest).

9. Ask to be treated like a VIP. Okay, I saved the most obvious for last. But it works. There’s a restaurant called Matsuri in New York. I went and loved it. So I called the manager, told her that I was crazy about the place, and would entertain there a lot if I could be pretty sure that I would be nicely looked after. I’ve been treated like a prince there ever since. And I do entertain there whenever I can – both for business meals and with friends. There may be new restaurants cropping up all the time, but Matsuri is still one of NYC’s best and has me for life.

About the author: Will Schwalbe is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, one of the powerhouses of New York publishing. He is, along with David Shipley of The New York Times, co-author of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

89 comments on “9 Tricks for Getting a Table (and Being a VIP) at Hot Restaurants

  1. I think this is a great list and, hey, who couldn’t use a break from the phrases “credit crunch,” “mortgage meltdown,” and “economy in crisis?”

    I’ve found that the best way to get treated like a VIP is to treat everyone else like a VIP too. Be nice, make people laugh, and let the servers know they did a great job. They’ll appreciate it and remember you when you come back. I know I did!

  2. UPDATE… I tried all 9 of these out with the staff at DENNY’S and, guess what? IT WORKS!

    I got my “Moons Over My Hammy” so fast it made my date’s head spin! And they let us sit at the corner table 9-seater all by ourselves!

    Thanks, Tim and Will!

    Sam

  3. @Sam ROTFLOL Thanks for the first hee-haw of my day! Hey, Tim, look for a special note in your Inbox — I’m on assignment with Canfield this week :D

  4. @Will, I enjoyed your tips ~ we always make a point to say Thanks to the server and staff at our favorite restaurants in more ways than one, and they express their appreciation tenfold! :D

    Celebrate Life & learning ~ I AM!
    Penne and the CanDo! Crew :o)

    iLearn in Freedom Network
    (Click username to visit see what we’re all about!)

  5. I enjoyed reading this post… especially the tip on not ordering the 2nd cheapest wine. I’m guilty on occasion.

    I’m new to your blog but will definitely be back. It seems as though you’ve got a great mix of content and a lot of readers!

  6. Hej all ! This post about fancy restaurants is too much. Come on get some real topic about crisis. We all (the whole world) be in a new 1929 . Not only US americans. As David Bowie’s song “Five years” will take to re born ?

    Tack!
    Danelm

  7. Ellen — Thanks for the comment. Glad it worked. And thanks, too, to Ed and Viviane and others. I’m pleased that so many people realized the intent of the post — which is to remind people the rewards of being nice (not that it needs a reward), of being loyal, of being generous, and of being interested in advice from the staff about what to eat and drink.

    I know that some parts of the post may sound tone-deaf in this really horrible economic climate — and appreciate the humorous ways people pointed this out. But especially when people can’t afford to eat out much, they really want and deserve it to be special when they do — particularly if it’s for an occasion like a birthday or an anniversary. And while some of the hottest and best new restaurants in my neighborhood are fairly reasonably priced local spots — in tough times even theses are a splurge. As B.D. rightly points out, in the fanciest of fancy restaurants, you probably will be treated pretty nicely no matter what you do.

  8. Hi Tim,

    Very interesting post. I have a challenge for you, what about getting upgraded on planes. Since you travel so much, I would be interested to know what your tips are on air travel as cattle class is getting more and more uncomfortable.

    Anna

  9. The cheapest wine? I know several people who are hardcore wine lovers and systematically order the best wine on the list. Or, even better: after making appropriate arrangements with the restaurant, they bring a bottle from their own cellar (usually far superior to anything that the restaurant has on the list) and then generously share it with the sommelier, maitre and chef. Everybody wins. These people get the real VIP treatment.

    • @JC… I used to think the same way to an extent. But one little known fact (unless your in the service industry), is that in many, if not most states, Waiters are paid “tip compensated wage”. This means that whether they get tipped or not, tips are figured into their wage. So, if your dining in Washington, Your waiter is making approx $9 before tips. But if your in michigan or texas, he/she is raking in a solid $2.17 an hour. Tips is how they make a living… and not the actual wage. Not to kick a dead horse, but in many cities, the service industry is a profession and not just a job. So, that waiter at the high end eatery has probably worked his way up the ladder to get the good high paying tables, or…. is the owner’s nephew on summer break.
      Just a thought.

  10. I enjoyed reading the article. I like the idea of being treated like a VIP.

    Sorry if this is off the topic. But the main reason I am writing is because of the comment posted by Peter on Oct 19th….he says: “Have you any other ideas on how to stimulate product ideas….”

    I have the opposite problem. I work for an inventor who has hundreds of product ideas and keeps getting more, but I can’t keep up with him. We need people who would like to market these, so we can keep thinking up product ideas and creating prototypes, instead of getting caught up in marketing.

    Just one example is a software program that increases your brain wave coherence while it runs in the background of your computer. We are looking for people like Peter who know how to market, but don’t have a unique product to market.

  11. I own two restaurants in NYC that are very successful and stumbled upon this. This guy has no f*cking idea what he’s talking about. The thing about the second cheapest bottle of wine especially irritated me. You want to be a VIP, be nice, get to know the staff, and truly enjoy the place. A lot of our VIPs don’t spend a lot of money or tip a lot at all, we just really like them.

  12. Tim
    Great post on how to get ahead before eating dinner. Another way is to use a website service call the opentable. Here you can reserve a seat within in seconds. Confirmation is fast plus looks impressive to other. I have used it several times and always got a table with a confirmation message within 2 minutes of making the arrangements.

    Works well with web enabled phone pda’s etc…

    PS Love the book thanks for the read

  13. It’s a shame that people seem to have to have a ‘plan’. Why not just enjoy the restaurant for what it is. We’ve had some of the best times in restaurants that were’t booked, weren’t expensive. One comes to mind in Paris where we were shoe-horned in with other diners, the place was heaving, passing plates back and forth having a great time with new friends. Spontaneity is king!

  14. In referencing Rudi’s comments, that it is a shame people always need a plan. Why is that a bad thing? To make my life easier, a little planning seems to go a long way. Most of the tips Tim gave seem to be based on the same idea, treat people how you would like to be treated. Especially staff at restaurants, cause most people treat them like ‘the help’.
    Also, looking at Christine’s comment on why we should care about dining in a fancy restaurant in these tough economic times. Doesn’t have to be a fancy restaurant. And, what about those who do business over food and drink? Spending a bit more, having a strategic plan, and being ‘in’ with the staff will help your social capital in front of an important client.
    These tips are very useful, and could make the difference between looking good in front of an important client or looking like an ass. And, who likes to do business with an ass?

  15. Tip 25%….just so that you can get a table when you need it – you must be joking! I’d rather visit a restaurant that wasn’t so pretentious!

  16. As a server at high end restaurants, the 25% tippers generally get the same service as anyone else. The tip happens after the meal, remember? Come back consistently and be a nice human being. That’s what changes the experience for you. As for ordering the cheapest wine, as much as people will bitch, it’s one of those things where you generally get what you pay for. No sommelier pads the list with crap wine in the hopes that you’ll be suckered into buying something for more than it’s worth. If it’s on the list, generally there’s a reason. If you want to know what’s good, ASK YOUR SERVER! They know what’s good, and if you’re looking for value, say so. They can help you find it. Also, ask what to order. You’ll get better food and a better evening, pure and simple. Remember the server’s name.

  17. Hiya, Tim. I realize this is a late question for an old post, but I’ve recently become aware of El Bulli, a restaurant in Spain that has received 2 million reservation requests in one year. Was wondering if you’d have any tips for that type of situation? :)

    Cheers!

  18. I had to respond here to clear up some bad ideas that this article proposes…

    I state this as someone who has been in the restaurant industry for almost 15 years and has been a part of it all his life.

    1. Do not EVER ask to talk to the owner, unless you have something specific that you would like to talk about. 1) The owner will likely not be there anyway and 2) if they are there and are not highly visible, they do not want to speak to anyone. If the owner would like to talk to people, they will make the rounds through the restaurant.

    2. When you ask the server (dear god, don’t refer to them as waiters if you want to be treated like anything other than an dingbat) to ask the chef what his two favorite items are, you’re doing one thing wrong: pissing off your server. Any server worth his or her salt will know the answers to those two questions and they are the front line to you getting proper service the next time anyway. I have met very few chefs in my day who exert any sort of presence with guests in the front of the house. Those that do are typically “celebrity” chefs and trying to kiss their ass is futile.

    8. Don’t choose the cheapest wine. That’s absurd. Anytime you order wine by price, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you aren’t familiar with a wide range of varietals, ask your server or the sommelier for guidance. And that thing about the second cheapest wine makes absolutely no sense and I don’t know why you would ever bring that up as anything resembling a fact. Restaurants do not arbitrarily mark up wines at different percentages based on perceived value. Food, yes. Beer, sometimes. Booze, almost always. Wine, never.

    9. DO NOT EVER DO THIS. PLEASE DEAR GOD, DO NOT DO THIS. If you call a restaurant and have the audacity to tell them that you would give them your business more often if you were looked after better is so effing rude that I would consider asking you to dine elsewhere based simply on that. Every single guest in a restaurant deserves the same quality of attention from the staff, whether they order the filet or hamburger, a bottle of Grange or 2 glass of water. If you somehow feel that you deserve more attention than any other person sitting in that restaurant, you’re out of your mind.

    If you’d like proper advice, do this:

    1) Become a regular.
    2) Get to know the staff. Shake their hands and tell them your name.
    3) Tip them well, but do not overdo it.
    4) Order the same thing three or four times in a row and suddenly the staff member will know what you want. I assure you that if they remember that, you are officially a VIP.
    5) Once they remember what you order, throw them some curveballs and they’ll still remember you.
    6) Do NOT ever act as if you deserve treatment any different than anyone else. That is at your server or bartender’s discretion.

  19. Ok, clearly this wasn’t authored by Tim. As a bartender, if you tip me 25% on a tab, I will remember you, but since it’s after you’ve gotten you bill, that will probably be next time.

    Some owners aren’t out dealing with customers for a reason, particularly executive chefs. The reason is they are either busy riding the wait staff and/ or have a near complete lack of people skills. Remember, they are artists first and foremost.

    Asking to see people(owner, chef, etc.) when an establishment is busy, is a terrible idea. We’re already running around like the proverbial chicken, don’t make our life more difficult. We’re having a hard enough time remembering 3 different martinis, two entrees, and the extra mayo for table 2, if you make more work for us than we already expect, you WILL NOT be in our good graces. Instead, come see us in our down hours. Come in and get to know us, and it’ll go a lot further.

  20. Tim, “Ask to be treated like a VIP?” We can’t all be Tim Ferriss! Must be nice. Must be nice. I enjoy your blog. Thank you

  21. I just can’t believe how cheesy the whole American restaurant scene is. I get great service from all the restaurants I’m at frequently and I couldn’t give a toss what everyone else orders or what some chef thinks I should order – how pathetic! You lot can suck the butt crack all you like, I simply expect to be served politely and professionally, and I tip accordingly. That will usually be anywhere from 15% to 0% depending on performance. There is nothing that bugs me more than an arrogant minimum wage plate chucker with a veneer of lingoladen bullshit passed off as wine knowledge. If you accept my reservation for a table of 12 at 8pm and seat me after 9, you won’t be tipped anything at all unless some heartfelt apologies are made and something is done to make me happy. And I won’t be coming back. Conversely, if you’re at the top of your game with an attitude to match I’ll tip 25%. I just don’t do “begging” for service. Although this post seems to suggest bowing, scraping and making pathetically cheesy platitudes is somehow necessary. I’m the one with the wallet, paying top whack to eat in a nice restaurant. Treat me like a valued customer or you won’t see me again. Restaurants who expect to retain a loyal customer base of grovelling sycophants don’t last very long anyway.

    • I’ve been working in food service for thirty-one years, and Jeremy I’m here to tell you that non-tippers almost always get the barest minimum of service. That’s a fact of life that can either be accepted, or ignored at your own risk.

      That being said, most of these tips are “spot-on”. In all of my years in the business, I’ve never once seen #2 done, and only one time in all of those years has a hand-written note been sent to the kitchen; it was enormously appreciated.

      I don’t think asking to see the chef or owner in person is wise on a busy night. On a slower night, it’d be a much-appreciated request, but keep in mind that chefs in particular are often found lacking in the most basic social skills—that’s one reason why they’re in the kitchen, and not out working with the public. Typically, they have Mercurial personalities.

      Overall, I find #4. #5, and #7 the most useful. As I said before, I’ve never seen #2 done, but I’d be profoundly impressed if I did.

  22. I think it’s funny that people posted on here with profanity and ignorance, yet they were the ones who read the blog. Tim didn’t force anyone to read this, he puts up what he finds interesting and guess what? It’s his blog.

  23. Going in off-season is the way to do it. I went to the fanciest sea-front restuarant in Cape Town a couple times in mid-June (mid winter here). After that I not only got the seafront tables instantly in summer but a 50% discount on my food from that day on :)

  24. Sir, it is customers like you that we restaurant people tire, sweat, bleed and burn for. A customer whose passion for the restaurant is only matched by the passion of the restaurateur. If you ever make it to Melbourne, Australia, I have a nice bottle of 10 year-old Chateau Moulinet with your name on it at The Point Albert Park restaurant.