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Table Salt

A sharp new play sends a jolt of recognition through the restaurant world.

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The best satire is so witty that even the objects of ridicule find it a riot. That must be why, from Bouley Bakery to Gramercy Tavern, New York's top restaurateurs have been laughing of late.

In the hit one-man show Fully Committed, Mark Setlock plays a frustrated reservationist at an unnamed four-star New York restaurant. He also does the voices of all his callers: the despotic chef, the smarmy French maître d', the supermodel's assistant, the relentlessly demanding socialites.

Top restaurants, like celebrities, are engaged in an edgy embrace with their admirers, and never have the resulting connivances and cruelties been quite so farcically exposed. Like Narcissus to the pool, the restaurant world can't stay away -- especially after reading William Grimes's review in the Times's "Dining Out" section.

"The whole industry has been to see the play," says Dominique Simon, the maître d' at Bouley Bakery. Before the sold-out show closed last week (soon to reopen for an extended run at the Cherry Lane Theater), it was itself much like a four-star dining establishment, with restaurateurs fighting to get in. Drew Nieporent, owner of Nobu and Montrachet, called his friends the Zagats to pull strings with the theater management. Daniel Boulud of Daniel and Café Boulud squeezed in at the last minute. "Of course we all recognize ourselves -- it's like going to see Molière," says Simon, who saw the play twice. "Everyone says that the maître d' in the play, Jean-Claude, is me, but there are a hundred Jean-Claudes around town!" Another candidate is Jean-Claude Baker, the theatrical owner of Chez Josephine. "People will do anything to get a reservation," he says of his restaurant. "I've had city officials offer to fix my parking tickets! The play is like a mirror."

Reflected prominently in that mirror are Tim and Nina Zagat, who loved the show so much they rented out the entire 129-seat Vineyard Theatre last Tuesday, inviting friends and staff. Onstage, Setlock hunted for the Zagats' lost reservation while the panicking chef screamed at him to pull the Zagat file and see what Tim ate last time -- drawing huge laughs from the audience.

Of course, everyone portrayed in the play says it's all exaggerated, but reservationists say it's all too accurate. "I wasn't laughing as much as everyone else," says Laura Breen of Verbena. "This is the truth." "The need and desperation is just awful," agrees Gramercy Tavern's Michael Quinn. "Assistants to movie executives are the most desperate, as if their bosses are going to kill them."

Quinn and seventeen other employees saw the show courtesy of their boss Danny Meyer. Although Meyer is known for introducing the concept of friendliness to New York restaurants, even he had a lesson to learn. In the show, a fellow reservationist phones Setlock pretending to be a thundering "Mrs. Buxbaum." This terrorizing trick is a familiar one: Meyer says he once called his own reservation line at Gramercy Tavern and pretended to be Senator Ted Kennedy -- stutter and all. "I was confirming my reservation -- which did not exist -- for that evening, and I really had the reservationist going!" says Meyer. "When I started laughing, he realized it was a game, but he didn't find it funny. After the play, I went up to him and said, 'I promise you, I will never, ever do it again.' "


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