A great restaurant experience relies on four things: the food, the service, the company (that’s your job) and the atmosphere, which is down to the maitre d’. That’s me. By “atmosphere” I mean the music and the lighting, yes, but there’s only so much mood-setting Dave Brubeck and a few filament bulbs can do. In the end, it’s about the guests. The maitre d’ runs the reservations book, which means mixing the characters in the room like the drinks in a cocktail to get the right balance of shot and mixer, salty and sweet.
At a top London restaurant, you have the pick of the finest ingredients. I once spent several minutes chatting to celebrated California-based architect Frank Gehry about the urban contrasts between London and LA. Later that evening, Pharrell Williams told me how much he liked the meatballs. (Gehry and Williams weren’t dining together, although I’m sure they would get on.) Where else besides a chatshow studio would you so frequently encounter people at the top of their game in business, entertainment, sport and politics?
I don’t work in the sort of place where the diners come to worship at the stove of a celebrity chef. They are not here because they read an article about our sous-vide roadkill with wasabi foam and want to post a picture of it on Instagram. They are here for a great night out, a place where the food is excellent, but not distracting, where the service will reliably impress a date or appease a potential business partner who is accustomed to the finer things in life.
If you have reserved a table here before, the restaurant already knows who you are. In the age of digital booking systems such as OpenTable, we are keeping a file on you almost by accident. That means we already have a note of our regulars’ allergies and dietary preferences. We know their favourite bourbon and how they take their coffee. We know not to address Mr So-and-so’s date as Mrs So-and-so, because the file says he divorced his wife three years ago.
If you are a particularly crappy guest, we make a note of that, too. The restaurant maintains a notional greylist and a blacklist of unpleasant diners. Act like an arse and you will find it very difficult to book a table again. Swearing at staff or other guests, racism, physical violence and sexual exhibitionism will get you banned outright.
That said, we cut diners some slack for cultural considerations. Spanish guests can take 45 minutes just to decide on their order. I’ve witnessed stand-up rows between Lebanese diners over who gets to pay the bill. Saudis can get deeply offended if anyone else pays for a table reserved in their name.
I learned that last one the hard way on my first day, when I mistakenly sent the bill to a table while the teenager who had booked it was in the gents. The young man returned to find the bill paid and spent the next few minutes yelling at me in front of his guests (and everyone else). In most fine-dining restaurants, the person who made the reservation has to give their permission for anyone else to pay the bill, to avoid exactly that kind of kerfuffle.
Of course, stereotypes don’t always hold true. Some of my worst guest encounters have been with self-made men who might well have washed a pot or two in their youths and ought to know better. Some of the most delightful have been with socialites and minor royals.
They say that being rude to waiters is a sign of poor character. That’s not entirely fair. The people I work with are smart enough to know that anyone can have a bad day; if you are curt or impatient, that’s fine. On the other hand, if you are aggressive or if you dine with us regularly and you are rude every time, we are going to have a problem. Don’t patronise the staff. A top London restaurant will have a rigorous hiring and training process; the people serving you are sharp as tacks and engaging with them will enhance your dining experience.
When I first started working in fine dining, I was bothered by the prospect of serving the 1%. Make that the 0.1%. But I learned that working for a luxury brand is the same as working for any other brand: doing it well keeps a lot of talented, hard-working people employed. Your meal costs that much for a reason, and it’s not only the age of your steak: at my restaurant, there are only four diners per waiter. The waiters rightly take pride in their work and the diners are paying their wages.
The vast majority of my colleagues are from elsewhere in Europe. I work or have worked with Spaniards, Italians, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovenians and Greeks. People are worried that Paris is going to take all of London’s top bankers after Brexit. It might take most of our best waiters, too. A lot of them have lived here for 20 years or more; naturally, they were upset by the referendum result. Whether or not they end up being allowed to stay in Britain, the message they heard was: “We don’t want you here.”
A restaurant’s week starts to hot up on Wednesday and Thursday nights, when the upper echelons of London society come out to see and to be seen: the Hampstead set, the Notting Hill set, the Chipping Norton set; media barons and big business figures; minigarchs and aristos. On Fridays, we get professionals letting down their hair after a long week at work. Saturdays are challenging, because the diners tend to have booked long in advance and want you to change their lives with a single meal. They are often out-of-towners celebrating a special occasion. Their spend-per-head is lower than our average diner, but their expectations are always higher. And then there are weekend lunches.
If you want to do any business at all on a Sunday lunchtime, you have to accommodate families. Personally, I enjoy watching a posh restaurant transform into a creche; kids do not care about your pretensions. I once found nine of them playing hide and seek under the tables in our private dining room. If they had tugged the wrong tablecloth, they would have sent hundreds of pounds’ worth of crockery and silverware crashing to the floor.
If you go to a top London restaurant planning to spot a celebrity, prepare to be disappointed. Part of our service is to help a famous diner keep a low profile, by putting them at a table in a corner where nobody will notice them and by surrounding them with tables of other diners who can be trusted to keep it together. If you are bringing your mum on her birthday treat, I’m sorry, but we are not seating you next to Adele.
As maitre d’, part of my job is to maintain good relationships with the concierges at the city’s best hotels. When the stars pass through on their promotional tours, you want the concierge to recommend your restaurant. Not even a celebrity is guaranteed a table, though. One of the world’s most famous musicians turned up over an hour late for dinner, at which point his security staff told my boss that they wanted the restaurant cleared for his entourage. They were told to find somewhere else to eat.
I have only been star-struck twice in my time as a maitre d’. The second time was when former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti arrived for dinner. Most people didn’t recognise him, but I and every Italian on the staff freaked out when he walked through the door. The first time was when I was still a rookie. I had to tell one of the world’s greatest living actors that there was no space for him to sit at the bar. I suggested he take a table instead, but he demurred politely and went elsewhere for his nightcap. My boss, who had heard the whole exchange, turned to me and said: “Did you just turn away Harrison Ford?”
How to get on the right side of a maitre d’
Phone to reserve a table in the morning or mid-afternoon, not at the height of lunch or dinner service. I once had someone call the restaurant to chat about a job vacancy at 8.30pm on a Saturday. They did not get the job.
Walk in without a reservation, especially on a weekday. Even at 8pm, there’s a good chance you will get a table. We love walk-ins, because the people tend to be spontaneous and relaxed and don’t have the heavy expectations that come with a long‑planned reservation.
Be honest. Some diners book for three people, knowing there will only be two, just to get a bigger table. We know your game. If you persist, you will end up on the greylist. Better to say: “There are only two of us, but I would love a bigger table if possible.” Half the time, you will get one.
Dress for McDonald’s. We are not going to make you wear a tie. But if you show the restaurant no respect, you will be treated similarly. You will probably be given a table out of the way, too, because other diners will have made the effort.
Say the owner is a close personal friend of yours. When someone tells me they know the owner, it’s normally because they are threatening to have me fired because I don’t have a table available for them. If you have to let the maitre d’ know what a big deal you are, you are not.
Arrive with unrealistic expectations. Relax, enjoy the company and you will have a great time. At the end of the day, it’s only dinner (in the middle of the day, it’s only lunch).
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