Why Can’t I Get My Favorite Table?

Q. Whenever I call a certain restaurant for a reservation, I ask for my favorite table. They tell me that they can’t promise it to me. I am a regular customer. We eat there three or four times a year. Sometimes I get the table, but I usually don’t. I’ve tried calling a long time in advance, but nothing seems to work. What’s the trick?

A. There isn’t one. You (and most other diners) have a different idea of how reservations work than is actually practiced by restaurants.

Very few restaurants reserve specific tables for their customers. Instead, they juggle the number of people on the book, the number of seats available, and the number of servers in the room. The assignment of the actual table doesn’t happen until you arrive. At that moment, the skillful host/hostess (I make that qualification, because not all of them have skill) sizes up the situation at that moment, and make the decision as to where you will be seated. If you’ve seen a hostess look over a seating chart, you have seen this process in action.

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It’s already a tricky matter figuring out how much room a restaurant has at a certain time–particularly after the first seating. The length of time the first customers stay is impossible to predict. To do that on a table-by-table basis would be a nightmare. The only restaurants that pull it off have more seats than customers. Antoine’s, for example, is vastly larger than it needs to be, so they can reserve specific tables with placards.

However, even in busy restaurants, some guests can command a certain table. While four times a year may seem regular to you, that’s only occasional patronage for most restaurants. Special favors start clicking in when they see you once a month or more often. Or if every time you come in you spend a memorable amount of money. So what else is new?

Having said all that, I must add that one strategy works at least some of the time. Show up right as the restaurant opens, and you may get your pick. Unless a VIP is competing with you for the table, you should be able to request and get it.

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