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

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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.

Posted on: October 19, 2008.

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

    • Fold up some cash in your hand where you cant see it, shake his hand and tell him “Thank you for taking care of me tonight, we’ll be visiting you again soon.”

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  1. Interesting post…… I used to do similar things for getting into nightclubs but never thought of restaurants. Thanks

    Tim, I have a general question if you could help me please, privately or publicly is fine.

    I have read the book twice and focused in on key areas over and over but the main issue holding me back is not really having found a product that I feel confident enough about or has not been done to death

    I have a website in logo design outside of the US and it only makes pretty average returns for the work involved despite SEO and being 3 on google for the main keyword. I act as the middle man…..

    I have other online ideas (although not a developer myself, I also outsource like you) for camparison websites but most of these have a bit of competition already and they seem to have done exclusives in some cases so will be hard to beat.

    My day job as a national accounts manager invlolves selling to the likes of Kmart etc in my country and also have experience selling hard goods and consumables (soft drinks etc) via distributor networks….. but I cant think of anything that is truly unique that I could test and could have enough distribution…..sounds pathetic I know but nothing jumps out at me. Worst part is I never stop thinking about becoming an entrepreneur but just cant seem to make it happen……

    I tried your magazine idea but I could not find anything or think of anything significant….

    I could just go ahead with my comparison site idea and hope to do it better and get better seo postioning (take at least 6 months) but as I said it will be a lot of work with no guarantees (wont work on PPC as too expensive)

    Have you any other ideas on how to stimulate product ideas. I think the rest of your book is fantastic and whilst you cant do the thinking for me or others finding a potentially successful product or service is my biggest hurdle.

    PS I have been trying to start something part time for years and am passionate about becoming an entrepreneur but I think I need a mentor to help….(hint, hint)

    Thanks

    Peter

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  2. Very intriguing – There aren’t any overly fancy restaurants where I live, but when I visit another big city for an extended period, I’ll be sure to try some of these.

    Thanks!

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  3. Tim – Long time fan and frequent visitor to your forums, Kamakiri here. I know you didn’t write this one, but a lot of the tips included in there were a bit off. Starting at the bar is great, but don’t ask if the owner is around. If they wanted to talk to you they would be at the bar. This is especially the case on a busy night. The last thing they want to hear is that a customer wants to talk to them, as it is generally a complaint. Even if you have flowery praise, the owner is probably more preoccupied with the schedule, payroll, slow food, food order…

    An owner is going to make the rounds of they have the time, if they aren’t doing it then calling them over will be a no no in most cases.

    Be careful with #2 as well. In many restaurants, the cooks can’t stand the waiters and vice versa, and can easily get you branded as a pita.

    Never, Never order wine by price. If you use that as your ordering criteria, you should be having a beer and a burger at the local greasy spoon instead of eating in a restaurant with waiters.

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  4. This is great advice.
    Having worked in 2 of Sydney’s hottest restaurants in the early 90s I know what lengths some people will go to secure a table… usually by trying to throw their weight around.
    Those sort of people often end up with spit in their soup (metaphorically speaking).
    25% tips sound good. When I was a waiter we’d average 5%.

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  5. If you want to be treated as a VIP in the evening make your favorite a regular lunch stop. They are usually less formal and you may have an opportunity to get to know the management.

    I was able to get into a favorite restaurant on Valentines Day without reservations because I am a regular…it was a nice to get an unplanned meal out with my wife. The owner just pulled me into the first available table.

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  6. Good post Tim
    Folks in the restaurant world are artists and really don’t get a chance for some applause. You tips here give them that chance at the spotlight. People remember fans as they usually get complaints all the time. So of my best friends have been chefs and restaurant owners. These folks are in the hospitality business and will give you VIP treatment if you give it to them first.

    No one is too busy to take a sincere compliment.

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  7. Kamakiri, that’s no way to make friends around here. I don’t even remotely believe in ***-kissing but you could have been a tad bit disingenuous. After all, the article, in general, is about how to get into others’ good graces. As a member of a successful, industry-praised, oil company and a world class theater venue that has played the white house, I can honestly say that as long as the “flowery praise” is kept simple, sweet and sincere, the owner of any establishment should be glad to hear it… psychologically, it helps offset the complaints to which you referred.

    Perhaps you could have given alternative suggestions… like bringing very small “thank you” or “simply amazing!” cards with you… business card size cards with your info on one side and the other side saying,

    “This card reserved solely for those who are SIMPLY AMAZING!”

    Anyways, your rebuttal was obviously well intended… so thanks.

    And thanks to both Will, the author of the article, and Tim, the author of the blog… for an article that presents some fine starting points. Thnx..!

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  8. I think the idea of asking the chef what his or her favorite meal is is a great idea, but I’m a vegetarian and a very picky eater. I’d be a little scared that they would recommend something I know I wouldn’t like – and then be forced to order it. Should I use my diet to my advantage and twist the question by asking what the chef recommends as the best “vegetarian” meal? Or is that impolite?

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  9. Another diverse and interesting guest post – thanks.

    I really like the ideas presented here, and I have not really though of doing something like this despite being a lover of eating out and expecting good service. Like the old saying that “you make your own luck” I suppose the same principle applies here in the fact you get out what you put in. Paying attention to the chef and the staff will reap rewards. I’m sure this is true of many situations where you receive service.

    Love the asking for the popular and chefs recommendation. Hope to have the guts to try that soon.

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  10. Thanks for the comments!

    CW: Most common is the “tip handshake.” Walk up (some people think you need to do this as you are being shown to your table; I usually do it after the meal) with some folded money in your right hand. Look the Maitre d’ in the eye, say thank you, and shake hands. You don’t need to tip every time — every few times is usually fine. Tips can range from $5-$20 for a modest restaurant or up to $100 at a very fancy one. You can also send a thank you card at holiday time with cash or a gift certificate. But I know that many people have different theories on all of this — so it would be great to hear them. Oh, and you never tip the owner.

    Kamakiri: I’ve found that while it can be very problematic to interrupt a chef during service, if the owner isn’t the chef, she or he will rarely mind being interrupted if it’s just to receive the thanks of a grateful customer. But to your point, it’s probably a great idea to add, “I would like to meet the owner to say thanks…if the owner isn’t too busy.”

    Marc: Great point about being a lunch regular! Restaurants that are packed at night but sparse during the day really appreciate the support.

    Darren: I find it’s best to make sure you are in a restaurant’s “sweet spot” when you do this. So if you are at a vegetarian restaurant or one with a really vegetarian-friendly menu, you should be in good shape. But I wouldn’t do this if I were you and eating at a restaurant that didn’t have lots of great things you can eat — even if you make your restrictions clear.

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  11. We were n Miami shooting a video and decided to have dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab. The restaurant was a hot commodity because stone crabs we’re in season. When we arrived we were told that there was a 2 hour wait. I discretely went up to the Maitre d’ and handed him a $50 dollar bill. He promptly handed it back to me and said “we do this on the way out”. I couldn’t believe it. I followed his advise and did what he asked and from that night on I never waited more than 1 minute for a table.

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  12. Hi Will,

    Thanks for the insight. I’m curious about the choosing of the cheapest bottle of wine. . .can you elaborate a bit more on this? Is merely asking for help the driver of better treatment?

    P.S. I’ll apologize if this post shows up twice, I posted it a while ago and it seems like it got snagged by my wireless connection monster.

    Cheers,
    Doc

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  13. Hi Doc,

    Choosing the cheapest bottle of wine won’t make you a VIP. But neither will choosing the second cheapest. (And I know a lot of chefs and owners and sommeliers who put tons of effort into finding a really good cheapest wine.) The real point — as you sussed out! — is that many of the people who work at good restaurants really like to help customers. Asking for help with the wine is a great start to establishing a personal relationship with the people who work there. And you should be able to be honest about your budget needs. Many people aren’t — so that’s why they reflexively order the second cheapest bottle on the menu.

    Best!

    Will

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  14. I’ve used most of those tricks above for years, and I have to say, they always work. Plus, there’s nothing that impresses a date/business person more then the owner knowing your name, and getting treated like a prince (princess).

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  15. Great tips!

    We had dinner at a great restaurant once where we gave the chef carte blanche – surprise us! That dinner was memorable, both for us and the chef. It is not often that a great chef gets the chance to display his creative talents.

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