David H. asks: How can you get reservations at today’s hottest restaurants?
Well, you can always book months ahead — but I can never plan that far in advance.
Instead, I use a number of approaches that begin with one central assumption: I don’t want or need to dine at peak times. If you’re one of those people who insists on eating between 8 and 9 on Friday or Saturday nights in the most stylish places, you can stop reading right here. Wanting to try a restaurant’s food without regard to your personal scheduling inconvenience is the key.
Actually, I prefer to dine off-peak. Even the noisiest restaurants are quiet, and you can actually carry on a conversation. What’s more, the unslammed staff is more courteous and painstaking, and there’s something really pleasant about seeing a restaurant in its relaxed mode. The food is often better because the kitchen isn’t “in the weeds.”
If you want to get into the hottest restaurants in town, go very early or very late. Even the most popular spots usually have slots available on the same day for, say, 5:30 or 10:30. And pick Monday or Tuesday, when business is a little slack.
Remember, places go in and out of fashion so fast in NYC that the place you think of as always packed may now be half-empty. So go on to opentable.com or some other reservation service, and scan the times they offer, keeping in mind that the websites might be pushing times that the restaurant wants most to fill, while the restaurant reservationist may be able to offer you times not available on the Web.
Also check the website of the restaurant itself; sometimes it also offers reservations. After doing so, you’re ready to directly approach the reservationist of that incredibly popular spot you seek to dine in.
Hint No. 1: The reservationist is your friend and should be treated as such. Above all, do not condescend. The person on the other end of the line may be willing to do you a tremendous favor, but only if you’re nice. Can you imagine the assholes they have to deal with on a daily basis? Many reservationists have flexibility about the times and days they can assign, and we all know that restaurants often keep a table or two in reserve, especially for someone really, really nice — like you.
Hint No. 2: It pays to be flexible. Your objective is to get a table for tonight, or perhaps tomorrow night. Just getting into the place is your plan, not to show how important you are by occupying a prime table at a prime hour. One thing I’ve found invariably effective is to say to the reservationist, “I’m really interested in checking out [restaurant name here]. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’m willing to take any time and any day.” This is music to the reservationist’s ears.
Hint No. 3: Even if you come up empty, ask the reservationist to call you if she has a cancellation. This sometimes works.
Hint No. 4: Many restaurants keep a small set of walk-in tables. These can be yours if you’re willing to be waiting at the moment the restaurant opens in the early evening. If you get to know the place, you’ll find out exactly how late you can arrive and still claim one of the walk-in tables.
Hint No. 5: Bar seats appear one and two at a time, so, especially if you’re a lone diner, consider the bar-seating option. Remember, the bartender is more or less nailed to her post and can often be more attentive than a rushed waitress with the large herd of tables to cover.
Hint No. 6: Places crowded at dinner can be slack at lunch. Consider eating lunch instead of dinner. You’ll probably save money, too.
Hint No. 7: Never name-drop to reservationists. Never say, “I know George Clooney.” They won’t believe you, and maybe they hate George Clooney, anyway. And “I’m a friend of the chef” never works. If you do know someone connected with a popular restaurant, call her up and ask if she can give you a hint as to how to get a reservation. Chances are, she’ll offer to make you one herself.
With enough determination and flexibility, you should be able to get into any place you want. And you’ll be amazed at how good a meal can taste when you’re starving at, say, 11 in the evening.