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How Not To Be Humiliated in Snob Restaurants

Caviar is always impressive. May and June, October and November are the best months for caviar. Malossol means “lightly salted.” Daddy O prefers the slightly less expensive caviar. Restaurants Ari favors keep a supply on hand. Ask if the house can spare some. Champagne goes well, Polish vodka even better.

Bela von Block always demands fresh horseradish. “That throws them. Not too many places have it.” If they do, he commands it cut in paper-thin curls. “Delicious with Bloody Marys. Put a strip between your teeth and drink the Bloody Mary through it.”

Devastate the chocolate mousse-swilling proles with your dessert order: “A nice crisp apple would be pleasant.”

For the best possible meal, restaurateurs wish you would order ahead. “Especially if you are more than four at dinner,” Stu Levin urges. “But even for a party of two.” Paul Kovi at the Four Seasons outdoes himself when you say, “We put ourselves entirely into your hands” Martin at La Seine says, “We knock ourselves out for out-of-towners who confide they’ve come because of the Gourmet magazine rave, have saved for a year and hope they won’t be disappointed.” Alfred Knopf Jr. asks to meet the chef.

The Grape

Any fool knows that Lafite Rothschild is a hotshot label. And the average child of 11 knows that 1959 was a great year. A great wine demands a great dinner. Nothing is less cool than ordering a Lafite with calf’s liver. If you can’t pronounce French, anglicize it with a pronounced Cambridge accent. Imagine that you are David Frost. The wine thermometer as a weapon demands élan and knowledge. You can impress even a journeyman oenophile if you know what vineyards got rained on just before the ’64 harvest. Study Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine. For classic one-upsmanship, grape division, memorize the Morrell liquor shop catalogue. Eye the cork stonily as the captain presents it to you. Sniff. You needn’t close off one nostril—it isn’t a Benzedrex inhaler. If the wine smells dirty, it is safe to say: “It has a lovely nose.” If it costs over $20, you may comment: “It isn’t quite what it could be. Let’s allow it to breathe awhile.”

The Payoff

Overtipping the waiter is wanton. It is impossible to overtip the maître d’. Some innocents still tip 15 per cent and some tip 25 per cent. But 20 per cent (before tax) is the going rate—15 per cent for the waiter, 5 per cent to the captain. If you sign the check, you must specify so much for each. Otherwise, the waiter claims it all and the captain is miffed. If there is a wine steward, he gets 15 per cent on the wine (subtracted from the waiter’s total at the risk of his wrath) or a dollar (on half a bottle). There is infinite cachet in the invisible payoff: Ask the maître d’ in advance to sign your check and add the usual tips—he will be impeccably discreet. Regulars tip the maître d’ $2 to $5 every three or four visits or generously at Christmas and before his vacation. A painting magnate hates to see his tips pocketed discreetly, with minimum impact. He likes to thank the maître d’ for a fine evening by sending $20 to his house with a note—“Makes the guy feel big at breakfast in front of his wife, and he remembers where it came from.” He did it after an impressively flambéed evening at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars. “Now whenever I walk in, I’m the thirteenth Caesar.”

If the evening was great, put it in writing—on Tiffany note paper, of course. If dinner was an outrage, definitely write. You may be invited back as guests of the house.

You can do better than gross currency. Martin’s Cartier cufflinks came from Mrs. Charles Engelhard. Frederick Brisson gives him tickets to Coco. When Martin and his wife arrived in St. Thomas on vacation, they were met at the airport by Charles Revson’s chauffeured limousine and invited to lunch on the yacht that “Fire and Ice” built. When Martin visits Rome or Milan or Washington, he sees the town in a car dispatched by J. Edgar Hoover, complete with FBI men.

What have you done for your favorite maître d’ lately?

Perhaps you can get his son into St. Bernard’s.

In fleeting moments of sanity, the lust to be be loved in haute eating circles may wane. If so, take a few deep breaths. Attacks of sanity usually pass quickly.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Find more vintage articles by Gael Greene at


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