I am nervous, truly nervous. As the taxi bounces southward through the trendier neighborhoods of Manhattan—Flatiron, the Village, SoHo—I keep imagining the possible retorts of some incensed maître d’:
“What kind of establishment do you think this is?”
“How dare you insult me!”
“You think you can get in with that?”
It’s just after 8 p.m. on a balmy summer Saturday and I’m heading toward one of New York’s most overbooked restaurants, Balthazar, where celebrities regularly go to be celebrated and where lay diners like me call a month in advance to try and secure a reservation. I don’t have a reservation. I don’t have a connection. I don’t have a secret phone number. The only things I have are a $20, a $50, and a $100 bill, neatly folded in my pocket.
I’ve never bribed my way into a restaurant. I’ve never slipped a C-note or greased a palm. In truth, I’ve never even considered it. I’ve assumed, of course, that people do such things. I’ve seen my share of Cary Grant movies. I’ve heard—and wondered whether such old-fangled gestures would work in the high-stakes, high-hype world of New York City restaurants. For everyday diners in Manhattan, cracking the waiting list at Nobu is said to be harder than getting courtside tickets for the Knicks. But is that true?
Curious, I hatched a plan. I would go to some of the hardest-to-penetrate restaurants in New York armed with little more than an empty stomach, an iron-clad willingness to be humiliated, and a fistful of dough. Most people (including the editors of this magazine) assumed I would get turned down at half the places on my list. “You’ll never get into Daniel,” said one. “Union Square Cafe?!” said another. “Forget it.”
My plan was to show up between 8:15 and 8:30 on varying nights of the week. I would go with a different companion each night. I would try to get a reservation by telephone that afternoon and go only if I were turned down. And I would carry a twenty and a fifty in my left pocket, and a hundred in my right pocket. I did have an incentive: I could eat at any place I could successfully finagle my way into.
Balthazar, on this night, does not look promising. A few people are lolling around in the foyer when my girlfriend and I step inside the door. I glance at the maître d’s podium and panic: There’s more than one person standing behind it. To whom should I give the money? I approach haltingly and ask if they have a table for two. The man and woman appraise my appearance—black trousers, gray button-down Italian shirt, buckle shoes—and the woman looks at the man. He is obviously the person in power. “Perhaps we can seat you in about 20 minutes,” he says in a manner that suggests it will be closer to an hour. We retreat to the bar.
Seconds later the woman departs and the man is left alone. This is my moment, I decide. I reach for the twenty and positively bolt toward the podium. I crane my left arm around the side. “I hope you can fit us in,” I mumble, and slip the bill into his hand. I am sweating; my heart is racing. “Oh. Thank you,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
Two minutes pass—two minutes!—and the woman approaches. “We can seat you now,” she says, and leads us to a corner booth. “This is one of our best tables,” she adds. Suddenly I’m Frank Sinatra. I’m King of the Strip. I exude aftershave and savoir faire. Call it the fedora effect. My girlfriend looks at me in a way she hasn’t since I surprised her by uncharacteristically demolishing a friend on the tennis court.
In talking to people about slipping money, I found a clear split: People of my father’s generation seemed comfortable with the idea, knew the rules, believed it was part of the price of going out. People under 40, by contrast, thought it distasteful, degrading, and showy. (The restaurants seemed to agree with the latter. When asked for their policies at the completion of this project, responses ranged from “It’s disgusting” to “The maître d’ will be fired if he is caught accepting money for a table.” A couple of the restaurants had no policy for or against.)
A few days later, I walked into Nobu, the Mecca of nouveau Japanese chic, with a female friend. A couple in front of us, wearing golf clothes, were just being turned away. I asked for a table. Again the two people behind the podium (both women) surveyed our appearance—black from head to toe. “Actually, we do have a table,” one said at last. “It’s not one of our better tables. It’s by the kitchen.”
“May I see it?” I said.
The woman led me to the table and I asked politely if she had something else. “Hmmm,” she said, looking around. As she did, I reached into my pocket, pulled out two twenties and a ten, and moved them toward her hand. She continued—“I’m afraid there’s nothing”—when suddenly she felt the bills in her hand, claimed them, and announced cheerily: “Just a moment, I’ll go and check.”