When Opportunity Strikes

Foodies trek to fill coveted restaurant seats

By noon on day one of the first transit strike this city has seen in a quarter century, New Yorkers had taken to the Internet to find out the crucial facts. "I'm wondering if there will be cancellations at Babbo, Per Se and other restaurants that are usually booked solid for weeks in advance," one opportunistic Chowhounder inquired.

And the answer was yes. We spent the day calling many of the city's top-rated restaurants—and biggest tourist draws—to find out how they were faring. We started with Michelin's three-star restaurants, of which there are four. These are some of the only places left in town where men are still required to wear a jacket. Could it be that we could just dust off our satin gloves and stroll right in?

Our inquiries were met with a guarded optimism that boarded on the defensive. At Alain Ducasse, there had been no reservations available as of the early afternoon, thank you very much. In fact, the reservationist's tone almost implied that she hadn't heard about the strike at all. Le Bernardin conceded that there had been "a few cancellations," and at Jean-Georges, we briefly considered making a reservation for four at 8:15 p.m., but then we remembered the other problem with three-star dining: we can't afford it. The phone system at Per Se was too complicated for the likes of us and we gave up after a few attempts to navigate the automated maze and make human contact.

Think five stars, not slices
photo: Kate England
Think five stars, not slices

Two-star restaurants admitted they had had some cancellations, but were already receiving calls like ours, from strike revelers who saw an opportunity to dine as if they had planned ahead. But all the one-star restaurants we called between 8:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. were taking walk-ins. There was a 45-minute wait to eat at the bar at Babbo, and a table available at 11 p.m. At BLT Fish, the hostess said two people might be able to sit immediately or could wait up to 30 minutes, depending on how many "no-shows" there were. Craft keeps a "walk-in table" which was available; they also had a cancellation at 10 p.m. and room at the bar. Café Gray offered to seat two at 9 p.m. There was no wait at Vong, a one-hour wait at Gramercy Tavern, and a table for two available at 8:45 p.m. at Walse. It seems there are more tourists than devoted foodies in the city.

While hostesses juggled cancellations and their eager replacements, the theater district took a big hit. At Barbetta, on "Restaurant Row," our call was not met with image-protecting denial. "This affects everybody—it's a joke," the owner said. "Tell Pataki to fire them all!" At Le Rivage, also on 46th Street, the owner said he had held off on his food deliveries for the day because it would be too difficult for his vendors. "I'm open because I live two blocks away," he said. He hadn't received many cancellations, "but is that because they're coming? Or because they're not considerate enough to call?"

Esca, Mario Batali's most tourist-friendly restaurant, which is located on West 43rd Street, was the only restaurant we called that was forced to close for the night. Though it probably would have drawn New Yorkers in place of theater-going outsiders, a stunned manager explained that they didn't even get that far. "Nobody came to work today. Nobody," he said, adding: "Horrible." In addition to the lack of employees, the seafood restaurant, which is famous for its selectivity in buying the freshest fish, had not been able to stock up. We asked whether they would have to remain closed for the duration of the strike. "No. I think tomorrow we're going to use helicopters to get food in from the west side."

 
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