2000s Archive

Pocketful of Dough

continued (page 2 of 3)

Several minutes later she returned, holding the bills in her hand. “You might want to take your money back,” she said. “There really isn’t anything we can do.” Then she added, “In the future, if you want a reservation, call me,” and gave me her name. Just like that, I had bypassed the masses yearning to break in. I had become an insider. And it hadn’t cost me a dime, merely the willingness to indicate that I would tip for service.

I had already learned a number of lessons. First: Go. You’d be surprised at what you get just by showing up. Second: Dress decently. Third, and most important: Don’t be ashamed. They’re not, and neither should you be.

Soon I ventured uptown. I was wearing a jacket; my friend, pumps and pearls. We entered the hallowed seafood manor of Le Bernardin, where I spotted a few empty tables. “Could you wait 20 minutes in the lounge?” the maître d’ asked. Seconds later, with new confidence, I slipped a fifty toward his hand and said, “Is there any way you could speed that up?” The man felt the money, then pushed it back into my hand. “Sorry,” he said, “there really is nothing I can do.”

Four minutes later, though, we were seated at a table for two by the window. Moreover, the maître d’ came to our table several times to ask if everything was satisfactory. At the end of the evening, not because I had planned it but entirely because I felt like it, I gave him $30. He graciously accepted.

Outside, I realized I had just witnessed the gold standard. The maître d’ turned down the money when it was a bribe, gave us the service anyway, then accepted the money as a well-earned tip.

If Le Bernardin offered the gold standard, I quickly encountered the opposite, at Jean-Georges, a citadel of New French elegance. Once again, though the restaurant was fully booked, we were offered a table in the formal dining room and asked to wait 15 minutes in the bar. After ordering drinks, I stepped over to the gentleman in charge, eased a fifty into his hand, and whispered, “This is a really important night for me.” He took the money and slipped it into his pocket. Fifteen minutes passed, with no sign of him, and no table. Another 15 minutes passed, still no sign. Finally, one of his deputies escorted us to a table.

For the first time, I felt slightly oily. Here we were offered a table with no hint of money, then someone took my money and didn’t deliver on his original promise. Worse, he didn’t even apologize for what was probably a routine delay. Money slipped to a maître d’, I was coming to believe, is a quick way of establishing a relationship, of becoming a valued customer. When no relationship developed, I felt I had been taken advantage of. I was a stooge, not a player.

Still, I was growing fearless.

There were 50 people lingering in the foyer of Sparks Steak House, a bastion of male power, when I entered at 8:15 with a male friend. We were told it would be 9:45 before we could be seated. I asked to be put on the list.

Given the size of the crowd and the length of the wait, I decided to reach for my right pocket. I waited until the man behind the podium was alone (Rule No. 6) and rested my left hand lightly on his back. Suddenly, I was Fred Astaire and he was Ginger Rogers. He knew exactly what to do. He pivoted toward me and turned his right hand from face down to face up, giving me a target. I slipped the bill into his hand and said again, “This is a really important night for me.”

He disappeared briefly, then 45 seconds later, he reappeared at my elbow. “Right this way,” he announced, and led us to a table. I had jumped a 50-person line and saved myself an hour-and-a-half wait. Forget Frank Sinatra. I was now James Bond.

Increasingly, I was struck by how much impact the experience was having on me. Surmounting this challenge night after night was actually giving me a certain self-assurance, a feeling of having grown up. Some might find this disillusioning: “You mean life is not first-come, first-served?” I found I had a different reaction: “You mean all it takes to crack one of New York’s most daunting thresholds is fifty bucks?” Even if I chose not to do it on a regular basis, just knowing how doable it is brought the whole puffery of New York restaurants into perspective. Bribing, it turns out, has as much effect on the briber as it does on the bribee.

A few nights later, the effect of this newfound glow became clear. I walked into Le Cirque 2000, the gilt-edged establishment on the East Side. “Sorry,” I was told. “We don’t have a table tonight.” No problem, I thought. I took a step back and tried to identify the person in power. Seconds later, a gentleman in a tuxedo approached. “We were wondering if you had a table for two?” I said, clutching a bill in my pocket…but not handing it over. He bowed. “Your table is ready,” he said, and led us into the dining room.

This was a new benchmark: I had bluffed my way in. Just by being prepared to bribe, I had achieved my goal. Was there some change in my appearance? Was I swaggering a bit or walking a little taller? Perhaps. A couple of days later, I bluffed my way into Aureole.

Subscribe to Gourmet