Hal Rubenstein

“WELCOME BACK!” Becoming A Restaurant Regular

Tired of overhearing, “You know who I ran into at Upland last night?” or “Lupulo was so nuts I could hardly hear myself!” while you debated whether to log onto Seamless Web or trudge to the café round the corner “well, because it just makes life easier.”

Perhaps, but it sure don’t make life better.

Having love and health are swell but being recognized as a “regular” at a hot hometown eatery elevates one’s existence from urban to urbane. That’s why it’s wise to acquire favored nation status at at least three – yes, three – of them.

But you don’t have hang out with Stephen Starr, Vicky Freeman, or either Mario (Batali or Carbone) to achieve this (though it doesn’t hurt.)

All a hungry civilian needs to earn a * next to your name in a reservation book is this clear, near foolproof strategy plus a few weeks worth of patience.

As Morgan Freeman now says on Waze, “Let’s go”:

  • The sooner you get yourself in the door of a new place the better. So check online sites for what’s arising on the horizon, and choose several that suit your mood, taste buds and wallet.
    Should you fancy the most nascent brainchild of a buzzy consortium, know it arrives stocked with a database of buddies. Or if your heart’s set on a venerated bastion where you’ve dreamed of dining, it may thrive on decades long relationships. However, do not be downcast. Simply break open an energy bar and proceed.
  • Call for a reservation – then take a breath. Since you will immediately be put on hold, either have your “Words with Friends” app handy, be ready to embark on the next round of Street Fighter V or continue binge-watching Orange is the New Black.
  • When, at last you hear a voice, DO NOT sigh and intone “Finally!” Instead, immediately say hello, pronounce your full name clearly and ask about the first of several chosen dates – pick early weekdays when business is lighter a week or two in the future and a window of time that’s flexible. Only request a party of 2, never more. If all that’s available is lunch at noon or dinner at 6:30 pm, take it. Rearrange one day of your life. Oddly enough, it probably works in your favor, because the staff is likely to have more time for conversation. Plus, right now, your goal is simply getting in. It’s not about you – yet.

 

  • Ask the name of the person on the other end. Make rue to repeat your name and his/hers several times during the conversation, then add the latter to the restaurant’s new listing in your smartphone. Ask for them the next time. Doesn’t matter if they aren’t there. It shows a connection.
  • There are two alternative ways to calling:
    1. Open Table allows you to search dates and times from now to the next millennium. However, the site only holds a finite number of tables per house.
    2. Show up in person (just not during peak serving hours). In fact, if ‘spontaneity’ is your middle name, most cancellations for an evening occur between 3:30 and 5 pm. Try walking in (or calling) then and you just might get lucky. You probably have better odds at this than winning the winning the Hamilton lottery.
  • DO NOT COME LATE FOR YOUR RESERVATION. Any restaurant you want to be part of should honor your time, or handle a delay with grace. Make eye contact. Introduce yourself. If it’s a man out front, extend your hand. Tell everyone at the desk how delighted you are to be here for the first time. Flirt as if you were Cary Grant (Note to millenials – Google him).

 

  • Once you’re seated, relax knowing that every new client offers new possibilities for the house’s longevity. And today, when it’s impossible to tell wealth or position by wardrobe, a savvy restaurateur is well aware you never know who anyone is, so it’s wise to be nice to you.
  • Waiters are servers, not servants. They are your prime conduit to this experience and your strongest ally for nailing your mission. Waiters talk. A lot. Treat the well, and others soon know. Act like a douche and you’ll be the talk of the room before you finish that Moscow Mule.
  • If your meal is all you hoped, ask if the chef might be available to come to your table. Because of the always-at-square-one-nature of a chef’s challenge, I’ve never met one who is “over” being complimented. Inquire about the composition of a favorite dish. Even better, Google him or her prior to arrival and ask about a positive part of their past. It will not be forgotten. If the chef isn’t available, ask the manager to come over, and charm the crap out of him/her. Or work them both.

 

  • Tip well, naturally, (despite Danny Meyers’ insistence, it’s still effective) and say good night to as many people as you said hello. Stop at the front desk and request the manager/maître d’s card saying you would like to drop a note. You will get one – promise
  • And here is your key to “Welcome back!” status – YOU WILL WRITE THAT THANK YOU NOTE. Not a text. Not an email. Pick up a pen; find a piece of stationery, preferably with your name on it, handwrite a not-tool-long but pointed letter recounting your wonderful visit, address the envelope to the name on the card, and put it in what few mailboxes are left.
  • Why does this work? Restaurants are one of the least automated, computerized businesses in the world. They thrive on teamwork, communication, and emotion only humans can create. As someone who worked in restaurants for over a decade, I’ve witnessed it multiple times. Write a praiseworthy passage and nearly everyone in the house will hear of it. Conversely, damn a restaurant in ink and management will call a staff meeting. After all, who gets a letter? Don’t you stand at the mailbox and open one the moment you see it?

 

  • Give snail mail 4-5 day, then call again again for a reservation, this time, using the number and name on the card. If your missive’s been received and read, get ready waves of charm. Have several back up times ready, but more than likely, the house is going to “squeeze you in”
  • Dine there at least four times in the next two months. If you’re not handed a private call in number, you can bet your weight in Maldon salt there’s now a star next to your name
  • You’re in. Repeat this two more times, and watch your Seamless web bill drop. Because now it’s your kind of town.