2000s Archive

Pocketful of Dough

continued (page 3 of 3)

Despite my luck, I knew I had saved the hardest places for last. Union Square Cafe has, according to the Zagat Survey, been New York’s “most popular restaurant for four years running.”

“You’ll be eating at McDonald’s tonight,” a friend said.

When I arrived at 8:30, the gentleman in charge said, “We can seat you in an hour.” I told him my name, took a few steps back, waited for him to step away, then approached and slipped him a $50 bill. “This is a very important night for me,” I whispered, and waited for the rebuff. To my surprise, the man seemed positively giddy. “No problem, sir,” he said, clenching the bill with boyish abandon. “I’ll check right now.” Ten minutes later we were shown to a corner table in the back. The deed had been done with such effortlessness, such quotidian blaséness, that my friend was nonplussed.“It feels so normal,” she said.

By this point, with the quick addition of Daniel, where $50 got me bumped up from the lounge to the dining room in 30 seconds, I had demystified the act. I had learned a new skill. I had gained ten pounds. And I seemed to be breeding followers: One friend called for advice on how to “tip” her super; another friend announced she had slipped a twenty to a clerk at the Charlotte airport. Also, people were bribing me to take them out to dinner.

But it turned out I still faced my biggest hurdle.

“You must try Alain Ducasse,” declared my editor. At first, I thought this was a cruel joke. The press was buzzing about the new restaurant from France’s maestro-chef that boasts a $2 million interior, a $160 tasting menu, and a bill for four approaching $1,500. Although the phone lines weren’t yet open, the word on the street was that the 65 seats a night were already booked for six months, with a 2,700-person waiting list. According to The New York Times, “Ordinary diners have less than a snowball’s chance of landing a table at Ducasse.”

I was clearly in another league of exclusivity. Lay eaters wouldn’t dream of trying to enter a restaurant where if you order verbena tea they bring the plant to your table and a white-gloved waiter snips the leaves with silver shears.

Still, I had no choice.

It was just after 8 p.m. on a Monday when I entered the ornate foyer. With gold columns, shiny black walls, and eccentric art, the room seemed one part Paris, one part Vegas, one part Decline of the Roman Empire. Within seconds, a French gentleman approached. I bowed.

“I was wondering if you might have a cancellation.”

“Oh, no, sir. We are fully booked.”

I slid a $100 bill toward his hand. He was overcome with the look I had expected all along: complete and utter horror. “No, no, monsieur. You don’t understand!” he exclaimed. “We only have 16 tables. There is absolutely no way!”

“In that case,” I said, changing tacks, “I was wondering if you might have a cancellation later in the week.” As he moved behind the podium, I reached for my business card (which lists no affiliation) and tucked the $100 bill underneath my card. I handed both to him, adding, “I am here all week.” He accepted them, and pressed the card onto a small leather folder with his index finger. He was shaking at this point, and I realized I was calmer than he was—a switch.

He then took a piece of paper and asked me my name (even though it was on my card), the size of my party, and my telephone number. “How about lunch?” he said.

“I would prefer dinner.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll call you.”

We shook hands, and I left. The following day, every time the phone rang, my heart leapt. The end of the day came, however: no call. The next day, 42 hours after I had walked into the restaurant, the telephone rang. It was a woman from Alain Ducasse. “We have a table for four tonight,” she said. “Can you find three guests to join you?” I asked if I could make a few calls. She said yes and gave me the private number. A few minutes later I called back and accepted.

For as little as $100—that’s $25 each for a meal that would ultimately cost close to $375 per head—I had jumped what was rumored to be a 2,700-person waiting list and gotten into the hardest restaurant in the world that week. Also, I had shot the moon. And I had done it by following a set of rules so old-fashioned that my grandmother could have written them: Dress properly, act dignified, be polite, smile. And spend a little extra for good service—it will pay you back in droves.

Forget Frank Sinatra. Forget James Bond. For the rest of that day, for the time it took me to call everyone I know, for the three hours and 45 minutes it took me to eat my 11-course meal, I was the lights on the top of the Chrysler Building. I was the smile on the Statue of Liberty. I was New York.

I was money.

Tips on Tipping

1. Go. You’d be surprised what you can get just by showing up.
2. Dress appropriately. Your chances improve considerably if you look like you belong.
3. Don’t feel ashamed. They don’t. You shouldn’t.
4. Have the money ready. Prefolded, in thirds or fourths, with the amount showing.
5. Identify the person who’s in charge, even if you have to ask.
6. Isolate the person in charge. Ask to speak with that person, if necessary.
7. Look the person in the eye when you slip him the money. Don’t look at the money.
8. Be specific about what you want. “Do you have a better table?” “Can you speed up my wait?” A good fallback: “This is a really important night for me.”
9. Tip the maître d’ on the way out if he turned down the money but still gave you a table.
10. Ask for the maître d’s card as you’re leaving. You are now one of his best customers.

Subscribe to Gourmet