Sometimes it's not votes or contracts or weekend invitations to Camp David that this city's movers and shakers and wannabes most covet. Sometimes, all a Washingtonian really wants is an 8 o'clock dinner reservation and a plate of Asian stir-fried lobster at the party known as DC Coast on 14th and K streets.
Getting through to a reservation clerk is one hurdle; snagging something for prime time at the dining destination is another. And once your foot is in the door, there's that nagging little question that separates the haves from the have nots: Do you have the best table?
The path to a cool roost in a hot restaurant is easy if your Zip code reflects an office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Barbara Walters just made you cry on TV. But if you're a mere mortal hoping to snare a top table?
Think like GQ or Vogue, suggests Jean-Jacques Retourne, maitre d' of the white-hot Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown: "Good-looking, well-dressed people go out front."
If you're anxious that your coiffure or clothes won't measure up, just follow the recipe doled out by managers from some of Washington's most popular feeding grounds: Be flexible about when you dine. Make a personal connection with the maitre d'. By all means, reserve in advance. Memorize favorite table numbers. Be nice.
Such are the tips that can spell the difference between a seat near a swinging door and a high-profile perch--say, the drafty discomfort of Tables 1 and 5 near the entrance at The Oval Room downtown vs. Tables 7-10, offering both window views and privacy, or a table in the eye of the storm on the main floor at DC Coast vs. a more soothing balcony spot. (Psst: Tables 53 and 54 on the second level offer an enticing view of the show below, along with less noise and foot traffic.)
Do Washingtonians really care where they sit? Is I-95 at I-495 the road well traveled? Let's look at the logs: Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom gets upward of 40 requests for particular tables on weekends. And maitre d' Willy Schmitt of Old Angler's Inn in Potomac laments the fact that "we only have one Table 6," a second-floor window perch and arguably the most sought-after table number around.
"The more successful the restaurant, the more fun the clientele, the more intense it gets," says architect and designer Theo Adamstein of Adamstein & Demetriou, the creator, along with his wife, Olvia, of Bis on Capitol Hill, downtown's Catalan, Cleveland Park's Yanyu and the freshly arrived Teatro Goldoni on K Street, among other alluring places to see and be seen. Most dining room managers agree, pointing to customers who aren't above bribing or name-dropping their way to a table they deem worthy. William Watts, the general manager of 1789, has had diners brag about their close connection to the chef--"Ris, he's an old friend of mine." So chummy, in fact, that they don't realize Ris Lacoste is a she.
The best seats tend to stand out, obvious as caviar on ice. They aren't near server stations. Or inches from an entrance. They're more likely to look onto something attractive--a fireplace, an open kitchen--and less likely to face a restroom or be tucked under stairs, like the unfortunate "Todd's table," said to be a favorite of Boston chef Todd English, at the otherwise splashy new Olives at 16th and K streets.
"Seating is one of the very first things we work on," says Adamstein. The current interior trends emphasize in-kitchen dining, communal tables and high booths, the architect says. "We try to make every table desirable."
But some locations are clearly more equal than others. Banquettes and corners, say maitre d's, go together like Bond and Bollinger. Just ask Ted Kennedy, a regular inhabitant of Table 23, a cozy cushioned booth in the main dining room at the golden-glowing Bis.
Restaurants aren't eager to share any B seating assignments. "All my seats are great," some maitre d's insist, a phrase about as helpful as a waiter who says "everything is good" on a menu. Some managers leave it to the guests to decide what's hot and what's not. "A good seat is clearly in the eyes of the beholder," says Reinhardt Lynch, maitre d' of the fabled Inn at Little Washington, where the most requested seat is one with a view of the garden; fortunately for the host, there are three rooms overlooking whatever's in bloom. Beyond that, however, guest preferences run "all over the map."
The seat to seek "depends on what kind of experience you want," says Gus DiMillo, proprietor of the multilevel, 190-chair DC Coast, which serves an average of 600 meals a day and takes reservations a month out. "Do you want to be in the middle of everything?" Tony Curtis reveled in the attention he got at Table 25 in the center of the main room. "Are you there for conversation?" A Tilt-A-Whirl-size, cocoonlike booth (think Numbers 14 or 15) on the ground floor proves choice real estate. Foodies hoping to get up close and personal with chef Jeff Tunks, on the other hand, prefer Tables 11 and 34, situated in front of the exhibition kitchen.
There's no pleasing some people, though. Earlier in his career, Retourne of Citronelle recalls showing all of the best seats to a couple about to celebrate their anniversary. None of them suited the wife, who complained that one seat was too close to the kitchen, another too near a wall, a third too cozy with the restroom. Her exasperated husband finally lost his patience. "It's a restaurant!" he hissed at his spouse. "It has a kitchen. It has walls and a bathroom. I'm going home." And he did.
Savvy diners get to know their numbers--which tables will dish up what they want. Table 6 at Old Angler's Inn enchants with a view of the patio, you'll recall. Georgetown's venerable 1789 spans five dining rooms and as many moods; habitues gravitate to Tables 32 or 33 in the animated pub, 26 or 27 in the Civil War-inspired Manassas room and 2 or 7, both corner spots, in the dignified main room, which is warmed up with a fireplace. And stargazers, take note: Harold Ickes heads for an upstairs booth at Kinkead's, Janet Reno prefers the second-floor dining room at Cafe Atlantico in the Pennsylvania Quarter. Before he died this summer, John F. Kennedy Jr. was routinely ushered to Table 22, one of three booths in the center of the dining room, at Bis.
"If you see a table you like," advises Sallie Buben, co-owner of Bis, "ask for its number."
Except at Citronelle. In more than three decades as a restaurant manager, Retourne says he's never divulged table positions. "If people see a number on their check, I just tell them I can change it," he says. Pressed, he shares his favorite locations: the tables overlooking the gleaming, glass-enclosed kitchen, along with the seats just behind the maitre d' stand.
Restaurateurs tend to share the sentiments of Mimi Schneider, the general manager of Kinkead's, who says "everybody should have the same opportunity" to sit in style. Yet status-conscious Washington tends to favor those who are more People than mere people: "When some senator's office calls, you try to get them in at the time they want," admits DiMillo of DC Coast. And where they want.
The co-proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington, which offers prix fixe menus that climb from $98 on Monday to $128 on Saturday, predicts a day when seating is similarly sold. "People are more than willing to pay a different price for a better seat on an airplane, a sports facility or a theater," says Lynch.
We can already hear the voice on the other end of the line: "Would you like to upgrade to a corner booth for an extra $50?"
How to Snare a Hot Spot
You don't have to be a bold-faced name to avoid sitting in obscurity when you dine out. Here are some suggestions for landing a special seat in a popular restaurant:
Reserve in advance: Most restaurants make it a policy to award choice tables to those who request them in the order they make their reservations. Lead times vary. The Oval Room suggests making prime-time weekend reservations a week in advance, while DC Coast advises calling for a particular table two weeks before the time you wish to visit. (A tip: Large tables are the first to go.) At Michel Richard Citronelle and the Inn at Little Washington, it pays to reserve a month ahead for a weekend rendezvous.
Be flexible: "Everyone wants to sit at 7:30," says Jean-Jacques Retourne of Citronelle. It's easier to get a prime perch if you're willing to dine early (between 5:30 and 7 p.m.) or late (after 9 p.m.). "You can pretty much get any table you want," during the first seating, says Sallie Buben, co-owner of Bis. And keep in mind that some people don't show up to claim their tables: "You shouldn't be discouraged from calling at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night," offers Michael Nayeri, general manager of Galileo, downtown. "I just might have a cancellation." At 1789, the best time to inquire about a last-minute Saturday opening is after 1 p.m. that day, right after the restaurant has finished reconfirming its evening reservations.
Get connected: Remember the words of the late James Beard, dean of American cooking: "My favorite restaurant is the one where they know me." If you're new to an establishment, introduce yourself to the maitre d' and let him or her know about any special requests. (Are you looking for privacy? Is someone celebrating a birthday?) Most dining room directors will do their best to accommodate such wishes, though they refrain from guaranteeing specific tables outright. If you've visited a restaurant before, let that be known when booking a table, preferably with the maitre d'--"reservationists will only note the request, but a maitre d' can determine it," says Willy Schmitt of the Old Angler's Inn. To foster a better relationship with their clientele, restaurants including Bis, Citronelle and 1789 keep lists of guests and their preferences.
Reserve through a concierge: Some restaurants give priority to guests staying at major hotels. If you're staying at the Four Seasons and want to dine at Kinkead's, for instance, you've got an edge over the anonymous caller; on average, the luxury property lands four tables a day at the acclaimed seafood restaurant.
Be an early bird: "Show up early for your reservation," says Joe Hurst, general manager of The Oval Room, which draws a major power crowd at lunch and ushers prompt diners to the best tables first. "The last of the 12:30 reservations will get the worst seat."
"Look the part," advises Retourne: While jeans and sneakers are verboten at Citronelle, the "natural selection" process of seating guests relegates fashion victims to the rear of the chichi hotel dining room.
Consider tipping your dining room manager: While many restaurants frown on or otherwise discourage gratuities offered solely in exchange for a good seat, other establishments encourage the practice. A recommended range: $10-$20, discreetly offered after the meal.
Remember Mom's advice--"Be nice": It might sound obvious, but many maitre d's say they're inclined to give a prized seat to a stranger who asks graciously over one who drops names or demands a certain perch. Retourne says he tries to "pay attention to the kid who saves up his money and comes in with his girlfriend." Mimi Schneider, general manager of Kinkead's, agrees. "I will go out of my way for that nice customer who calls up" and politely asks for something special. "I want to see people with manners get ahead."
Loosen up: No matter where you sit in a restaurant, you're still getting the same service and the same food, says Reinhardt Lynch, maitre d' of the Inn at Little Washington. Besides, "you're not buying a piece of real estate," he reminds diners, "you're just having lunch or dinner."