For really advanced knavery, it takes a rogue—“preferably Hungarian,” says writer-rogue Bela von Block, John Paul Getty’s ghost. “This is von Block,” Bela announces, demanding a table. Then he asks for a rundown on the house’s clarets, or orders champagne to be waiting in a bucket. “I ask for Pol Roger and I accept nothing older than the forties.” What if the restaurant has an acceptable Pol Roger? “I doubt if five restaurants in New York have,” says von Block. “If they do, you’ll be stuck for about $60, but when you play Russian Roulette, you’ve got to be ready to take an occasional shot in the wallet.” Next von Block deploys a messenger with an envelope addressed to himself care of the maître d’. “I steal impressive letterheads and use a wax seal.” When he arrives at the restaurant, the headwaiter takes him aside. “We have an instant intimacy.”
For sheer class, you may never beat the wispy plaster-cast dowager whose chauffeur carried her into La Caravelle. But sables never hurt. Jonathan Dolger, author of The Expense Account Diet, advocates a confident smile. “Definitely have your teeth capped.”
Don’t rush… glide. Greet the maître d’ by name. As he teeters off-balance (Who are you? Should he know you?), quickly give your name. “Ford. Table for two.” “Of course, Mr. Ford.” (He juggles tables mentally. Perhaps you don’t belong quite so deep in Siberia.)
“Good” table and “bad” table can be crucial. Ludwig Bemelmans told of a woman who was always given an undesirable table in a certain posh restaurant whenever she dined with her husband. One day she came in with another man and was immediately led to the best table in the house. Divorce inevitably followed.
Just as water seeks its own level, tables find their own status. The most desirable tables are in the heart of tumult and traffic. Not even the iron-willed Henri Soulé could de-status a table once Le Pavillon pets had charted their own perverse social topography. “They would rather dine in the telephone booth than in the dining room,” he would complain. True, it’s the same mousse de sole no matter where you sit, but the service can vary erratically. Of course, the snobbery of status-¬seekers breeds reverse snobbery. At “21,” says Mimi Strong, “the nouveau status-seekers will stay at the bar till they get a seat in the front room…they’re afraid to sit down anywhere else. The most important people insist on a table upstairs with the nobodies.”
Money liquefies some glaciers, but not those of the Académie Pavillon.
Money will not melt Robert Meyzen of La Caravelle: “You cannot buy a table—not for $200,” Meyzen has said. “If you belong here, you get a table.”
Martin Decré likes simplicity. Simple black dresses and simple diamonds. Mme. Henriette of Côte Basque and the cantankerous Fayets of Lafayette have never warmed to ladies in pants. Soulé’s disciples are stodgily conservative. La Grenouille is more permissive. There, in the castle of the Seventh Avenue kings, anything goes: see-through jumpsuits, unfettered bosoms, Sioux rain-dance togs. Le Pavillon under Stuart Levin has softened its formidable mien. But after five, dark suits and white shirt are still de rigueur. And no turtlenecks at lunch. “Not even for Sammy Davis Jr.,” Levin warned. “Of course, if he comes in dashiki I’ll have to let him in…dashiki is national dress.”
The wrong purse and a voluminous suburban bag (unless it’s alligator) are dead giveaways, Mimi Strong cautions.
The lady checks her coat. Yes, even her sable. “We like to think our customers are secure,” Levin observes. So, check the security blanket. Martin demoted a very impressively dressed couple from the plains to the frozen tundra. “When he passed by I saw his rundown heels and white socks.”
Even the consummate arbiters of “in” have their astigmatisms. Henri Soulé himself once seated two matrons in the farthest reaches of Outer Mongolia. They ate lunch without protest. “You have a nice restaurant—it’s a pity you don’t know your New York,” the former Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller admonished Soulé as she exited. La Grenouille’s headwaiter failed to recognize Alice Longworth. “Howard Hughes in his dusty sneakers would probably get the same rebuff,” predicts Jonathan Dolger. “I assume he’d walk around the corner, step into a phone booth and buy the block.”
No reservation? The snob maître d’ keeps a few empty tables for the eleven-hour whims of his favorites. Present yourself, discreetly costumed, to the benevolent ogre. You may get the table you couldn’t reserve on the phone that same morning.
A Little Knowledge
You can never know too much about food. If you care what crosses your palate, you may fire a bored captain’s imagination. I favor an academic approach. Cooking lessons…a year at the Cordon Bleu. A tutor in French…frequent research trips to France. Waverly Root is my muse, and Larousse Gastronomique the companion of my insomnia. At the very minimum, memorize a few common terms: Florentine (spinach); Veronique (with white grapes); en gelée (jellied); fumé (smoked). If something is cold or singed or spoiled or rotten, send it back. If you order ris de veau expecting rice and veal, you lose points complaining that you didn’t order sweetbreads. Try not to weep when you discover pamplemousse is not exotic mousse of pamples but merely everyday grapefruit.