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2000s Archive

Pocketful of Dough

Originally Published October 2000
You want to go to the hottest restaurant in town. You have no reservation. Bruce Feiler has a plan for you.

I am nervous, truly nervous. As the taxi bounces southward through the trendier neighborhoods of Manhattan—Flatiron, the Village, SoHo—I keep imagining the possible retorts of some incensed maître d’:

“What kind of establishment do you think this is?”

“How dare you insult me!”

“You think you can get in with that?”

It’s just after 8 p.m. on a balmy summer Saturday and I’m heading toward one of New York’s most overbooked restaurants, Balthazar, where celebrities regularly go to be celebrated and where lay diners like me call a month in advance to try and secure a reservation. I don’t have a reservation. I don’t have a connection. I don’t have a secret phone number. The only things I have are a $20, a $50, and a $100 bill, neatly folded in my pocket.

I’ve never bribed my way into a restaurant. I’ve never slipped a C-note or greased a palm. In truth, I’ve never even considered it. I’ve assumed, of course, that people do such things. I’ve seen my share of Cary Grant movies. I’ve heard—and wondered whether such old-fangled gestures would work in the high-stakes, high-hype world of New York City restaurants. For everyday diners in Manhattan, cracking the waiting list at Nobu is said to be harder than getting courtside tickets for the Knicks. But is that true?

Curious, I hatched a plan. I would go to some of the hardest-to-penetrate restaurants in New York armed with little more than an empty stomach, an iron-clad willingness to be humiliated, and a fistful of dough. Most people (including the editors of this magazine) assumed I would get turned down at half the places on my list. “You’ll never get into Daniel,” said one. “Union Square Cafe?!” said another. “Forget it.”

My plan was to show up between 8:15 and 8:30 on varying nights of the week. I would go with a different companion each night. I would try to get a reservation by telephone that afternoon and go only if I were turned down. And I would carry a twenty and a fifty in my left pocket, and a hundred in my right pocket. I did have an incentive: I could eat at any place I could successfully finagle my way into.

Balthazar, on this night, does not look promising. A few people are lolling around in the foyer when my girlfriend and I step inside the door. I glance at the maître d’s podium and panic: There’s more than one person standing behind it. To whom should I give the money? I approach haltingly and ask if they have a table for two. The man and woman appraise my appearance—black trousers, gray button-down Italian shirt, buckle shoes—and the woman looks at the man. He is obviously the person in power. “Perhaps we can seat you in about 20 minutes,” he says in a manner that suggests it will be closer to an hour. We retreat to the bar.

Seconds later the woman departs and the man is left alone. This is my moment, I decide. I reach for the twenty and positively bolt toward the podium. I crane my left arm around the side. “I hope you can fit us in,” I mumble, and slip the bill into his hand. I am sweating; my heart is racing. “Oh. Thank you,” he says. “Don’t worry.”

Two minutes pass—two minutes!—and the woman approaches. “We can seat you now,” she says, and leads us to a corner booth. “This is one of our best tables,” she adds. Suddenly I’m Frank Sinatra. I’m King of the Strip. I exude aftershave and savoir faire. Call it the fedora effect. My girlfriend looks at me in a way she hasn’t since I surprised her by uncharacteristically demolishing a friend on the tennis court.

In talking to people about slipping money, I found a clear split: People of my father’s generation seemed comfortable with the idea, knew the rules, believed it was part of the price of going out. People under 40, by contrast, thought it distasteful, degrading, and showy. (The restaurants seemed to agree with the latter. When asked for their policies at the completion of this project, responses ranged from “It’s disgusting” to “The maître d’ will be fired if he is caught accepting money for a table.” A couple of the restaurants had no policy for or against.)

A few days later, I walked into Nobu, the Mecca of nouveau Japanese chic, with a female friend. A couple in front of us, wearing golf clothes, were just being turned away. I asked for a table. Again the two people behind the podium (both women) surveyed our appearance—black from head to toe. “Actually, we do have a table,” one said at last. “It’s not one of our better tables. It’s by the kitchen.”

“May I see it?” I said.

The woman led me to the table and I asked politely if she had something else. “Hmmm,” she said, looking around. As she did, I reached into my pocket, pulled out two twenties and a ten, and moved them toward her hand. She continued—“I’m afraid there’s nothing”—when suddenly she felt the bills in her hand, claimed them, and announced cheerily: “Just a moment, I’ll go and check.”

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.

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.