Most diners would rather have their maitre d' than their president feel their pain. When something unordered shows up on the bill; when the table is too small, too close, too far or, worst of all, not ready. First we want a little commiseration. Then some action.
Silvio De Mori, co-owner of Mimosa Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, is a master of such moments. He is not the sort of front-of-the-house man who communicates with pinched nostrils and pursed lips. If you're waiting, he winces along with you as a table makes motions to leave but then settles back down. His whole body English, as a table starts to rise, is that of a baseball slugger imploring the ball to stay fair.
"I cannot bring myself to ask people to leave," he says, his face darkening at the clearly unspeakable image he is about to put into words. "Even when, after coffee, they bring out a photo album."
This is the great maitre d' paradox: the thrill of the place being full versus the constant need for tables to seat arriving customers.
"Your weapon is to know how to make people wait," De Mori says.
At some restaurants, a brushoff to the bar with a vague approximation of waiting time is enough. Not for De Mori.
"Eye contact" is good, he says. "Constant information" is better. But "free drinks" are best of all. He keeps champagne on ice right at the front desk, along with some French aperitifs.
"So it costs me $50 a night for a few bottles," he says of what is obviously a solid investment.
At Mimosa, the moment you're told your table isn't quite ready, De Mori is pouring. He'll pour one for himself, too. He'll toast, spend a few minutes in happy conversation.
In a town where even valet parkers can have attitude, this affability is refreshing. It is one of the reasons Mimosa has become one of the most popular restaurants in town since it opened last January.
De Mori is a handsome man with light blue eyes and a high, aristocratic forehead. Married for 25 years and the father of two grown children, he has the air of a man about town, favoring open-necked tattersall shirts, double-vented suits and fine leather loafers.
And in the dining room, he is a throwback to an earlier time. His is an old-fashioned presence, based as much on discretion as on showmanship.
"You never mention a customer's name too loudly," he says. "And you never, ever say when they were here last."
Asked for some of the famous names who have walked through the door, he simply flashes an expert's smile and says, "I don't really pay attention."
The restaurant reflects this same restrained elegance. The walls are painted a deep, tawny yellow that De Mori says reminds him of his native Tuscany. There are red banquettes along the walls "because ladies always like to look out at a room," and mirrors hanging above them "because men like to keep an eye on what's going on in the room behind them."
Mimosa is very cozy. It is also tiny.
"We can sit 45 inside and 40 outside," says De Mori, sounding almost surprised himself by the smallness of the room.
He shows a visitor the reservation book. There are several columns of names, divided into half-hour slots. It is booked solid, but not overbooked. All the same, it looks like trouble. There are 200 reservations for the 85 seats.
Simply put, a successful restaurant like Mimosa seats a lot more people every night than it has room for. The reservation book is what modulates the flow.
"Everyone wants to eat between 7 and 8," says De Mori, rubbing his forehead.
And how does he accommodate them? "We avoid taking 6:30s," he says, meaning that if you call for a 6:30 reservation, the hostess will probably tell you there isn't a table even if there is one. Instead, she'll suggest you take a table at 6.
In the restaurant business, this is not called lying; it's called seating.
The goal is twofold. First, it maximizes occupancy by selling the table as often as possible over the evening. Second, it gets a head start on the crowd control that the rest of the service will require. If there's a good first seating at 6, by 7:30 you head into your second seating with tables freeing up and 60 or 70 of your night's 200 diners already taken care of.
That's the theory--now the practice. It is 6:20 at Mimosa on a Friday night and there are only two tables taken. The entire first seating is running late. A busboy kills time by folding napkins. Waiters pace in the back corridor, one shares the fact that Billy Wilder has a good appetite.
Outside, the valet parkers lean against the parking meters. One of them describes how Tom Cruise likes to have his car kept right in front (a service that runs about $40). There's the atmosphere of waiting for an ambush.
The tension is highest in the kitchen. The cooks know how ugly it's going to get when the crush comes. But all they can do now is wait. They look out through the bars of the expediting counter. They rap their knuckles against cutting boards. If anyone starts to whistle, the atmosphere will be 100% Sergio Leone.