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Critic's Notebook

You Don't Have to Settle for a Lousy Table

April 26, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

You give your name at the desk. The host or hostess asks if everyone is here, thenleads you straight to the worst table in the room. It's a familiar scenario, particularly annoying when there are other, better situated tables still open.

Most of the time, I'll ask if there's possibly another table, and indicate which one I'd prefer if possible. That cozy booth or that window view may not be available, but something else might be. Most of the time, the hostess will move you. She might make a fuss, letting you know she'll have to walk all the way back to the desk to check and see if someone has reserved that specific table. Let her.

Somebody has to get the worst table, but it doesn't have to be you, not unless it's the only table left. Even then, you have an option: Wait in the bar for the next available spot.

Sometimes I've arrived at a restaurant after my guests were already seated to find they've meekly taken the table right by the bathroom or kitchen door. In that case, we'll either live with it or ask nicely for another table.

I'm sure we've all experienced the embarrassing moment when someone throws a hissy-fit because they're not shown to a table in keeping with their self-assessed worth, say, an A-table at Spago Beverly Hills or the Grill. That is never acceptable behavior. We're talking about politely asking for a different table.

If you don't want to be seated in front of the exit door, as two friends of mine were on their first visit to a very expensive French restaurant, it pays to plan ahead. For the record, they did say something, and while the hostess couldn't move them, she did promise to get them a better table on their next visit.

If you can, drop by an unfamiliar restaurant ahead of time to check out the layout. That way when you make your reservation, you can ask to be seated at a specific table or in a certain area. The drill always seems to be, "We can't promise anything." It also helps to nudge things along if you mention your preference again when you call to confirm.

Recently, I went to a Westside restaurant with no reservation. Only one table was left, a booth at the back, so of course, we took it. I tried not to mind the slices of bright white light hitting my eye every time the kitchen door opened. We solved it by all shifting slightly to the left. But just before dessert, our table was overwhelmed with a blast of air freshener every time a door at the back opened. We explained the problem to our waiter. By now, some other tables had opened up, and she moved us for the dessert course.

The manager was cordial enough to volunteer the names of the best tables, so we could request one of them the next time. This is useful information.

Of course, if the restaurant does its part, you have to do yours. Honor your reservation. If your plans change, make a point of calling to cancel. Call ahead if you're going to be more than 10 or 15 minutes late. Understand, too, that seating is not an exact science, and a guest may linger long after dessert and coffee. Restaurants that consistently overbook are another matter. But part of why they do it is because they have so many no-shows.

When I call to cancel a reservation, often the voice on other end is taken aback, astonished that someone actually took the trouble to inform the maitre d' they wouldn't be coming in that night.

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