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Ask Fathom: Get Me into Impossible Restaurants

by Rita Jammet

It's an empty table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and, damnit, you want it.

Dear Fathom: I travel for the food. And I can't stand hearing, "we're booked" when I call for a reservation: I only have two nights in London and I want to eat at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Also, how can I be treated like a regular when it's my first (and probably only) time someplace?

We feel your pain and know the frustration. So we turned to the most gracious restaurateur we know, Rita Jammet, who used to own the much-missed French restaurant La Caravelle in Manhattan and now runs La Caravelle Champagne. Born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Lebanon and Switzerland, Rita is like the godmother of the New York food world, and she knows the universal secrets of the reservation book. We gave her a few situations to handle. (And the next time you have a burning travel dilemna, Ask Fathom. We're here to help.)

Let's break this down into six easy tips.

1. If possible, start your research early (website, press, reviews) so you know about the restaurant, its players, its menus.

2. When you call, play nice. Be courteous and genuine and show that you're interested, like "I'm booking my ticket to Copenhagen around my reservation at Noma." Chances are the reservationist will want to help you if you're friendly. And it may seem obvious, but it helps if you can be flexible on time.

3. Still no room? Ask to be placed on the waiting list. If you're staying in a hotel, ask the concierge for help, ideally with some lead time. If you have an American Express card, call their concierge service: They have clout because the often make arrangements with top restaurants for card members.

4. Does one of your friends have an in at the restaurant? This should help nabbing the slots kept for VIPs.

5. Take advantage of social media: Like the restaurant/chef Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, post comments. Yes, it really does work.

6. Finally, be persistent. If you still get nothing, show up at the restaurant the day of (either very early or, better yet, on the late side), for a canceled reservation or the slot that every restaurant keeps for last-minute reservations.

When they say "we only have tables at 5:30 and 10 p.m.," aren't they just lying because they think I'm a nobody?

Restaurants are managing their reservations, and that includes attempting to have an even flow of traffic. Does it help to be "somebody" or to know "somebody"?  Oh yes, it does. But look at it this way: If they gave you the last available reservation at 7:30 or 8, the next caller would ask the same question you're asking.

I have one meal at this amazing place. How can I guarantee a great time?

It's like every experience: When you know about the place and sort of know what to expect — what the specialties are, what not to order — you will enjoy the restaurant even more. Striking a good rapport with the staff, including the bartender, will also enhance your experience.

When it comes to ordering, these are my guidelines:
- If a restaurant is famous for its tasting menu, go for it if budget allows, as it really shows you what the kitchen can do.
- A lot of people ask the waiter, "what do you like?" but since that's only one palate's opinion, it's better to ask "what is the chef most proud of?"
- An interesting and unconventional approach is to determine what you're in the mood to drink and look for dishes that will work with the wine. The sommelier will love helping you plan your meal.
- If you love a certain ingredient, look for it on the menu. You never know what the chef can do with a sunchoke in season.

Will it help to duke the maitre d' a lot of money?

It depends on the circumstances. I would say yes for the most part, and it should be done discretely. On your first visit to that hard-to-get-into restaurant, you could tip the maitre d' upon arrival. On subsequent visits, tip the maitre d' before you leave. However, in Asian countries, NEVER tip. It might be considered an insult.

By the way, what qualifies as "a lot of money"?

No less than $20, and if you're so inclined, all the way to $100, or the local equivalent.

Not to be a jerk, but I'm used to a certain kind of treatment at restaurants. How can I get treated like a regular when it's my first time?

Establish a relationship with the front of the house team. Introduce yourself and address the major team players by name. Again, showing your interest in the restaurant will get you a long way. That said, don't brag about being a regular at The French Laundry. They won't be impressed; they'll think you're a showoff. Be friendly, but not too familiar, and never be arrogant or superior; it's a sure way to jeopardize a reservation.

And since you never know when you'll be coming back, if you did make it in, get the name of the general manager before you leave and send a note thanking them for the lovely experience. You can't underestimate the power of a thank-you note — or raving about your experience on Facebook and Twitter or giving tips on Foursquare. When you recommend the restaurant to friends, ask them to say you sent them. You'll be very welcomed back when you return.

Should I be dressed up or will I look like I'm trying too hard?

You should dress appropriately, matching the degree of formality of the restaurant.

What about telling the restaurant that it's my birthday? Will it get me special treatment, or do you totally see through that ruse?

It's better if someone else in your party tells the restaurant it's your birthday, either when making the reservation (especially if you want to order a cake) or upon arrival. It has become a standard practice and most restaurants are good about it. As with everything, if you ask nicely, you greatly increase the odds of success.

Can I ask to meet the chef or the owners or is that totally tacky?

Nothing tacky about that. But it helps if you have something else to share with them, like any kind of connection to the owner, chef, general manager, or sommelier or a story about how you heard about the restaurant — in addition to saying you loved the restaurant.

Send your travel dilemnas to Ask Fathom. We're here to help.

Rita is the ambassador of La Caravelle Champagne, a restaurateur in love with good eating, bubbles, and fun. She travels for culinary discoveries and “how it’s made” moments.

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