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We're back… the incredibly posh people who are still unaccountably waiters!
July 23, 2012 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Eater DC's monthly interview series, 'The Gatekeepers' talks to the hosts and hostesses at some of the city's most prestigious restaurants, discussing hard-hitting topics such as securing lucrative reservations, choosing the best table, and the favorite dishes of the famous dignitaries that pass through Washington. Their most recent interview, however, went a bit differently, perhaps revealing a bit more than intended about the world of fine dining -- a world where bribes are de rigeur, black customers are not seated next to each other, and well-dressed patrons are given preferential service. Though few in the industry will admit to it, bribing the host appears to be the fastest way to get a table (unless you're a tourist, or the Maitre d' happens to be the CEO of Groupon). HuffPo and the City Paper react.
posted by schmod (53 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Slightly offopic, but needs to be linked here: Joe Bastianich's book (upon which a few of the above links are based) inspired one of the most colorful strings of profanity that I've ever seen.
posted by schmod at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Waiters accept cash for treating you well. Why shouldn't maitres d'?

Is the morality really changed by when the payoff occurs?
posted by Egg Shen at 10:32 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maitres d' are presumably getting paid for their time even if you don't slip them a twenty.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:36 AM on July 23, 2012


In NYC there really was a race-seating fiasco at the restaurant Oceana.

The cash thing honestly doesn't bother me. It's pretty egalitarian actually. I mean, I get a lot of favors at restaurants for knowing people in the industry and being a supplier. How is that any more "fair?" It's not restaurant's job to be fair.
posted by melissam at 10:36 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have no comment on the seating question, but how is the money even an issue? It's a place that charges thousands of dollars for a bottle of wine, and people are appalled that you can tip extra for better service?
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:38 AM on July 23, 2012


Um, no, I tip waiters because I know that they aren't getting paid hourly and that is simply the social convention.

The idea if not getting into a restaurant because some socialite fuckface has a hundred bucks to burn on getting a "VIP" table is more classist bullshit.
posted by windbox at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Fascinating! I'm actually surprised by not by the fact that they take bribes, but at how low the bribes are.
posted by corb at 10:44 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've long thought that restaurants should charge some small amount of money for a guaranteed reservation (say: $10 that is not a credit toward your bill and is charged whether you show up or not).

That would accomplish two objectives: people would only make reservations they intend to keep and restaurants would lose money if they are unable to fulfill their commitment within a small window. Time is worth money and thus far the market has ignored that fact, which is why we have bribes.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:44 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only one out of hundreds of proposals have said no? I was seated next to a couple at a nice restaurant in Chicago. At the end of the meal, he pulls out a box of diamond earrings and pops the question. The gal, dressed to the nines, gasped, cupped her hands over her face and then ran to the bathroom sort of crying. Left the proposer sitting there. For a while. A long while. So long that his waiter tracked down a female employee of the restaurant to go into the bathroom to check on her. The employee comes back to the table and says, "I am sorry, but could you come with me?" We never did find out what happened, but we did get a glass of champagne. As he got up, he handed me the bottle and said, "Enjoy."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:48 AM on July 23, 2012 [15 favorites]


I was a host at a family restaurant when I was in high school, and I happened to seat the two black families that came in in the same section... it was slow, and they were the only people in that section. One of the guys kind of jokingly asked me if they were in the black section. I told them they could sit wherever they wanted to, and he just laughed.

It had never occurred to me that I needed to pay attention to that, but of course there are still places that would segregate diners if they could get away with it. Kind of ironic that you have to sort people according to skin color so people don't think you're racist.

Also, a guy offered me $20 to seat him in front of a huge line of people, and I turned it down, I think because the guy just assumed that he could buy me and it pissed me off. If he had offered me $100, though, I don't know what I would have done... I didn't have much money then.
posted by Huck500 at 10:49 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is the morality really changed by when the payoff occurs?

For reasons that should be obvious, yes.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:51 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That big check is interesting. I thought it was standard to not tip a percentage on very expensive wine, but just $100 or so for the sommelier.
posted by smackfu at 10:59 AM on July 23, 2012


Maitres d' are presumably getting paid for their time even if you don't slip them a twenty.

I think it's more like tipping the bartender big on your first drink.
posted by smackfu at 11:01 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Waiters are paid after the fact for delivering good service. Bribing a host is demanding preferential treatment up-front.
posted by schmod at 11:05 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Exactly why I prefer eating pulled pork in my bathing suit.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:07 AM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


The part where he said he did the same for someone who tipped him $5 as for someone who tipped him more made me roll my eyes. I don't believe it.
posted by OmieWise at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised this is eliciting a reaction, to be honest. It's always been my understanding that tipping like this falls under "That's Just The Way It Is" if you don't have a reservation and walk into a busy restaurant at 8pm.
posted by smitt at 11:15 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised at how direct he is about it.

The 30% tip on a $30k bill gives me class warfare issues, though. Gilded age indeed.
posted by Forktine at 11:18 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've definitely been in a restaurant that was seated so all the white people were up front by the windows. Never went again. Park Slope, Brooklyn.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:20 AM on July 23, 2012


I think this is something people used to know but forgot.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2012


It's the free market at work. If that table is worth more to you, the restaurant should give you priority. I'm not a fan of trying to run healthcare on the free market, but for seats in a restaurant, why not?
posted by COD at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joe Bastianich's book is terrible. His mom seems OK, at least when I see her on PBS, but he just comes off as a total douchebag.
posted by fixedgear at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't read his book, but I kind of love his mom.
posted by OmieWise at 11:29 AM on July 23, 2012


The HuffPo reaction to the race seating thing is distorted, inflammatory and unfair (I know, big surprise):

In the same interview, Kebaier also revealed he didn't like to seat African Americans together, nor Chinese or Japanese guests. His reasoning? To "have the balance in the dining room."

No. He revealed he didn't like to seat African Americans together, nor Chinese or Japanese guests together because " It kind of looks like a different section just for this race." Which, you know, could presumably be taken as insulting by the customers of those races entering the room, as Huck500's anecdote above demonstrates.
posted by mediareport at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ever since I read that article about maitre'd "bribes" a few years ago, I've wondered if it works as well for women as for men (my knee-jerk reaction is 'no'), but I've never been at a fancy enough place without a reservation to warrant trying.
posted by muddgirl at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2012


Fascinating! I'm actually surprised by not by the fact that they take bribes, but at how low the bribes are.

Right? I have a hard time believing that a maitre d' who would openly acknowledge taking bribes for seats would also be the kind of guy who wouldn't look at the money until after he had seated the guests. I'm picturing him smiling as a guy in a cheap suit slips him a folded bill in a closed palm on a busy Saturday night, and giving up one of his 4 VIP tables in a restaurant whose checks average well over $200 a person. Later, he looks down and notices that he's been handed a wrinkled fiver. "Darn," he mutter to himself. Ah well. Just the way the world works, in the madcap world of underground seating economies in upscale DC eateries.
posted by Mayor West at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2012


I'm guessing looking at the money in a discreete manner isn't very practical, so they just take the chance and seat you, and instruct the waitstaff to pee in your soup if you trick them with a fiver.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:38 AM on July 23, 2012


My guess is they don't look at the tip, since the person who slips you $100 looks different than the one who slips you $5. And I doubt anyone really slips anyone $5, so we're talking more like $20 minimum here.
posted by smackfu at 11:41 AM on July 23, 2012


Money makes life easier.

I'm surprised that anyone is surprised by any of this.
posted by freakazoid at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was actually a 50% tip on a 20K bill. The 1% can be awfully generous with their stolen money.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:44 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


And I have to agree about Joe Bastianich seeming to be a total douchebag.
posted by freakazoid at 11:48 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bribes!? In our nation's capitol? Well I never!
posted by mike_bling at 12:01 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"If someone for example wears a nice suit with a nice watch, nice lady, I'm not going to sit with him a guy wearing just a khaki and a shirt." So women are just fashion accessories?
posted by Ian Scuffling at 12:04 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, see, that kind of quote is what makes me think that bribes-from-women would be interpreted differently at fancy dining establishments.
posted by muddgirl at 12:05 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've definitely been in a restaurant that was seated so all the white people were up front by the windows. Never went again. Park Slope, Brooklyn.

I am interested to know which place this was. I have a couple guesses in my mind.
posted by Falconetti at 12:20 PM on July 23, 2012


Refreshingly frank piece - the restaurant dude comes off well, I think
posted by Bwithh at 12:41 PM on July 23, 2012


Exactly why I prefer eating pulled pork in my bathing suit.
I prefer it on a bun.
posted by MtDewd at 12:46 PM on July 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


I am interested to know which place this was. I have a couple guesses in my mind.

Diner, on 7th Avenue between 1-10th st I think but not sure, not Purity, it's vaguely western-themed. I don't remember the name but know it on sight. Any clue?
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:16 PM on July 23, 2012


I've tried discretely bribing a host/hostess a few times to bypass a long wait when we didn't have reservations. Once the cash was turned down and no preferential treatment was given, once the cash was turned down but we were seated 5 min later (after being quoted a 45 min wait), but the best time was at the Rainforest Cafe in Disney World several years ago. Two hour wait, around 100 people (and 50 strollers) waiting out front, wife and daughter were beyond hungry and cranky. Casually slipped the hostess a bill while asking if there was anything she could do about the wait and our names were called about 60 seconds later, to the joy and amazement of said cranky family members. Best $20 I ever spent.
posted by bizwank at 1:21 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


In 2000, Bruce Feiler wrote in Gourmet magazine on learning to bribe a maitre'dgetting seated at restaurants without a reservation: Pocketful of Dough.
It's fascinating.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 1:47 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Diner, on 7th Avenue between 1-10th st I think but not sure, not Purity, it's vaguely western-themed. I don't remember the name but know it on sight. Any clue?

Bonnie's Grill? They have a small front seating area, then a long counter and then a slightly larger seating area in the back.
posted by Falconetti at 2:11 PM on July 23, 2012


Nope, I'll see if my partner remembers when he gets home.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:14 PM on July 23, 2012


Exactly why I prefer eating pulled pork in my bathing suit.
I prefer it on a bun.


I dunno, I was skeptical at first but now that I've tried it I'll always eat pulled pork in RobotVoodooPower's bathing suit.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:28 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That old article was killer, Prince o'C. I don't know why this practice doesn't trip my scumbag meter, but somehow it doesn't. Something to do with saviour faire, I think.
posted by Diablevert at 2:34 PM on July 23, 2012


So we agree that the practice of not seating two parties of the same (non-white) race next to each other to avoid the perception that the restaurant is racist is an OK practice? It seems ridiculous to me, but not exactly, like, prejudicial. Idk. Knowing this happens would make me paranoid as shit if I were not-white and going to a fancy restaurant, but I guess there's probably a layer of paranoid around those occasions anyway.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:16 PM on July 23, 2012


I’m also having trouble believing that people are surprised or upset about this, I always assumed that’s just the way it works, although I don’t eat in those kinds of places unless someone else is paying. I thought the guy came off pretty good, a straight shooter. It’s not like taking bribes at the DMV, it’s a private restaurant.
posted by bongo_x at 3:24 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly, the race thing struck me as a bigger deal.
posted by schmod at 3:33 PM on July 23, 2012


I guess I don't have a problem with bribing the maitre-d because it's just another signal that a customer can send that they're going to pay for better service. Many of the other maitre-d's in those interviews pay lip service to the idea that they treat every customer the same, but on the other end they talk about repeat customers getting special off-the-menu dishes - the chefs aren't putting that much effort into feeding the tourists from Podunk, and I don't expect them to! My own experience is that when the 'Dude and I go out for a special occasion, we get better tables and better service, and the waiters expect us to spend more money and tip better.

Overall I find bribing to be less egregious than the common restaurant practice of treating women (both friends and gay couples) worse than men (friends or gay couples) or hetero couples.
posted by muddgirl at 3:37 PM on July 23, 2012


I was a hostess [what feels like a lifetime ago] at Legal Sea foods in Crystal City. Totally different class of restaurant, but when Tommy Thompson, the HHS Secretary at the time wanted a table for him and his wife, I told him and his security they could suck it. OK-I told him the wait would be an hour and I was unable to pull any strings. But in my head I was totally thinking "and suck it."
posted by atomicstone at 3:55 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


So we agree that the practice of not seating two parties of the same (non-white) race next to each other to avoid the perception that the restaurant is racist is an OK practice?

The issue isn't really racial, or about the perception of racism. This is done for the same reasons most things are done when dealing with the general public - it's done out of self-defense.

Working in a restaurant you become hyper-aware of not just the problems that are occurring, or even about to occur, but of the problems that could merely potentially occur. You are wise to make decisions accordingly. Sometimes, in life, one must avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:43 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maitres d' are presumably getting paid for their time even if you don't slip them a twenty.

I used to be a maitre d'. Or host. Whatever it's called. I'm a server now, and I swear I'll never host again. Most people think that the host has an easy job of just walking around, looking pretty, taking reservations, talking on the phone, and seating customers. Yes, absolutely, that is the easy part. The hard part is dealing with people, which is pretty much the job description. The hosts get bitched at by impatient guests, by servers who feel like they've been mis-seated, and the rest of the staff considers them to be at the bottom of the restaurant hierarchy.

Hosts/maitres d' don't get paid that well for their time. At most places, they are only getting paid $2 above the minimum hourly wage. Assuming that the average part-time host works 20 hours a week, that's a paltry $40. This kind of place is where your bribe will totally work, unless a manager is hovering nearby and doesn't approve.

At some places, they'll receive a tip-out from each server. This, in my experience, is not common. And these places, in my experience, is where your bribe probably won't work, and probably has rules against host-bribing (though rules never stopped anyone...). A host that receives a tip-out gets a HUGE boost in income. At the place where I currently work, the hosts are paid minimum wage, but they get a nice tip-out (3% of each server's sales). I worked tonight, and I calculated that each of them received a $90 tip-out. I, the server, walked out with $110 in tips. Only a $20 difference. This was a Monday night, and the numbers triple on Friday and Saturday nights.
posted by Xere at 12:26 AM on July 24, 2012


The 30% tip on a $30k bill gives me class warfare issues, though. Gilded age indeed.

Wait, is that bad? I think if I were a waiter I'd be thrilled to get a tip like that.

Diner, on 7th Avenue between 1-10th st I think but not sure, not Purity, it's vaguely western-themed. I don't remember the name but know it on sight. Any clue?

Are you thinking of the Grand Canyon, on 7th between 1st and 2nd? That's a shame to hear, though I wonder if it's because the stroller mafia got there and grabbed all the tables.

Let me assure you, you're not missing much if so, that place has terrible food anyway.
posted by corb at 1:12 AM on July 24, 2012


In the right kind of place (fancy but not NYC/DC/LA fancy, I suppose), simply drop the name of a good hotel concierge in the city, explaining that this concierge sent you. Bells ring, birds sing, and gates open before you.

In truth, I did this once, and it was a mistake and accident. I WAS sent by the concierge, but to a different place. But I was 17 and hungry and had a pocket full of cash, and I was buzzed. So in my confusion, I said it. And lo, I got a table, and then I did dine on my desired (LUST!) prime rib of roast beast. ;-9 (I was on liberty from Great Lakes, so you'll appreciate the circumstances. I'd not tasted real food for 2 months!)
posted by Goofyy at 2:42 AM on July 24, 2012


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