Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Outby Steven A. Shaw
Award-winning food critic Steven A. Shaw (a.k.a. "The Fat Guy") can get a last-minute dinner reservation at the most popular hot spot in town. He knows how that flawless piece of fish reached your plate. He can read between the lines of a restaurant review, and he knows the secrets of why some restaurants succeed and others fail. Now he shares his insider's
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Award-winning food critic Steven A. Shaw (a.k.a. "The Fat Guy") can get a last-minute dinner reservation at the most popular hot spot in town. He knows how that flawless piece of fish reached your plate. He can read between the lines of a restaurant review, and he knows the secrets of why some restaurants succeed and others fail. Now he shares his insider's expertise with food lovers everywhere.
But Turning the Tables is much more than an invaluable how-to guide to eating out. Written with style and humor, it's an in-depth exploration of the restaurant world a celebration of the incredibly intricate workings of professional kitchens and dining rooms. It is a delectable feast from a uniquely down-to-earth gourmet who has crisscrossed North America in search of culinary knowledge at every level of the food chain from five-star temples of haute cuisine to barbecue joints and hot dog stands and who has never been afraid to get his hands greasy on the other side of the swinging kitchen door.
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Turning the TablesThe Insider's Guide to Eating Out
By Steven Shaw
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Steven Shaw
All right reserved.
Getting What You Want
As you walk down the corridor toward a restaurant's exit, restroom, or patio, they're always there in your peripheral vision: the doors. Most every restaurant has a few blank doors; you're not really supposed to notice them. What's going on behind those doors?
At New York's Eleven Madison Park, Isabel Rodriguez is behind one of those doors, taking reservations. When it comes to getting reservations, Isabel can be your best friend. Or not.
When you call for a reservation at most fine-dining restaurants today, the phone isn't answered by a tuxedoed maitre d' standing at a podium. He doesn't inscribe your reservation in the pages of a substantial leather tome. Rather, your call is likely to be answered by a reservationist -- it's not in your dictionary, but it's a word -- sitting in an office, and her tools will be a headset, a multiline telephone, and a computer.
At exactly 9 a.m., Isabel activates the phones (if you call earlier, you'll just get a recorded message) and within a few seconds four lines are ringing. "Eleven Madison Park, would you please hold? Thank you!" she says four times in succession, in a faintly accented English reminiscentof a James Bond seductress. As she gets back to the first caller, her hands are a blur of mouseclicks and keystrokes as she decisively navigates the electronic reservation system to a date, time, and table size, all the while acting as though there's no pressure from the other three (and soon four) callers standing by.
As soon as Isabel keys in the first few letters of the caller's last name, if he has reserved before, the OpenTable software starts narrowing the choices from its database. After four letters it's down to one choice, and Isabel knows the caller's first name before he even gives it. And she knows more: not only his phone number, but also a dossier of information that would make the Central Intelligence Agency drool. At more and more restaurants, "guest management" software like OpenTable is used to keep records of everything from allergies to birthdays.
This particular customer has been to the restaurant seventeen times before, and there is a record of all those dates. He has also made two reservations that he subsequently canceled. He has zero no-shows. The servers and managers have picked up various information and entered it into the computer over time: He works in the office building adjacent to the restaurant. He prefers to sit in section 3 of the dining room, preferably in a corner. One time he sent back his tea because it wasn't strong enough, so there's a notation "brew tea very strong."
Not every call is for a reservation. Someone wants to purchase a gift certificate; Isabel faxes her a request form. Other callers want to arrange private parties, speak to restaurant employees, apply for jobs -- Isabel's hands dance across the phone's controls as she transfers each call to the right place. In her moments of downtime, Isabel wraps chocolate maple leaf candies for a charity event in which the restaurant is participating, types up special event menus, and answers my questions. During the three days I observe Isabel in action, I never see her performing fewer than two tasks at once.
Eleven Madison Park is a busy restaurant, and getting a prime-time reservation on a weekend night can be a challenge. Some people get those reservations, and others don't. As this chapter demonstrates, as we watch The Life unfold from morning until the wee hours, the flip side of knowing what Isabel's job entails is knowing how to work with her to get the reservations you want. Watching Isabel at work and listening to dozens of her phone calls confirms that whether or not you get that empty table is very much up to you.
Every night at a popular restaurant is like an overbooked airline flight. And restaurants, like airlines, operate on razor-thin profit margins; a couple of empty seats can mean the difference between profit and loss for the evening. Most restaurants that accept reservations therefore overbook their dining rooms, because they know that a certain percentage of the reservations will either cancel late in the game or be no-shows at the moment of truth. And in the end, after all the cancellations and no-shows have been tallied, there is almost always an empty table. Your mission, should you choose to accept it? Get that empty table.
Whether you really want or need that table is, however, an open question. Too many people, I think, place too much emphasis on visiting restaurants that are new, hot, staffed by a celebrity chef, featured on Food TV, or otherwise in demand, rather than restaurants that are simply good. Although my work as a food journalist often requires that I visit hard-to-book restaurants -- and thus I've become extremely facile when it comes to getting in-when spending my own money I prefer to go to restaurants that are tried and true.
Should you wish to get into an in-demand restaurant, however, the first step is to acquire a basic understanding of restaurant demographics, which includes a good working knowledge of local news, weather, and even sports. The most painless way to get a reservation is to take a cue from the judo masters: never fight strength with strength. Instead, be a contrarian. If the restaurant does mostly dinner business, go for lunch (the food will be the same, and often cheaper). If it serves a mostly pretheater crowd, go at 8 p.m. If it's a business-oriented place, go on the weekend. Even the most popular restaurants tend to be empty during blizzards, the Superbowl, and Monica Lewinsky's Barbara Walters interview.
But sometimes you don't want to eat at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, or in a snowstorm. What then? The lesson I've learned from observing Isabel and interacting with scores of other reservationists over the years is that, when attempting to secure a reservation for the busiest times, the key is polite but confident persistence.
Excerpted from Turning the Tables by Steven Shaw Copyright © 2006 by Steven Shaw. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Steven A. Shaw, aka "The Fat Guy," is the founder of the phenomenally successful eGullet website, a James Beard Award-winning food critic, and a contributor to Saveur, Crain's New York Business, and many other publications. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
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