How to get the best table in any restaurant

We talk to the director of one of London's most prestigious restaurants on what it takes to get an in

For some people, restaurant reservations are a matter of life and death. Just ask Paul Allen, the young banker in American Psycho who receives a taster menu of fireman’s axe and yuppie vengeance when he one-ups Patrick Bateman over a booking at Manhattan’s hottest eatery (“Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now!” screams Bateman over the blood and synth pop.)

We’d suggest that the stakes aren’t quite as high as all that (and anyway, we’ve always preferred a chainsaw and some Billy Joel.) Nevertheless, securing the finest table at a high profile restaurant is an art unto itself, and a power play that can’t be underestimated.

How to get the best table in any restaurant
The dining room at the Ivy, where a seat at the top table is a deeply coveted prize

Needless to say, it helps to have a man on the inside. Fernando Peire, the estimable Director of The Ivy, has long been the restaurant world’s gatekeeper-in-chief. And as its Senior Maitre d’ during the name-dropping and sharp elbows of the nineties, he’s seen every trick in the book. Here’s his insider’s guide to getting your Gucci loafers under the best table in town.

Be charming

“It won’t surprise you when I tell you that genuine charm and warmth will go further than absolutely anything else.” says Fernando. The best tables don’t just go to the biggest names, but also to the most pleasant callers. “Tell them you’d love to eat at the restaurant, and completely understand if they can’t fit you in, but that you’re happy to have a cocktail at the bar and eat there, if needs be” advises Fernando. This kind of understated approach more often than not endears you to the front of house — who will be much more likely to seat you in a power position.

I can’t overstate the power of being perfectly nice

“I can’t overstate the power of being perfectly nice,” Fernando says. “Don’t just walk in, put a couple of fingers in the air and say ‘two?’, which does happen more than you’d think.”

Dress the part

How to get the best table in any restaurant
Caractère in Westbourne Grove — a new contender for London's hottest table

“This doesn’t mean overdressing, of course,” Fernando tells me. “It means dressing right for the establishment. Soho House doesn’t want you to turn up in a suit and tie, while The Garrick will raise eyebrows if you turn up with an open collar.” Dressing the part, in Fernando’s book, means wearing something that you feel comfortable and confident in. “That’s when you’ll look your best.”

Table allocations aren’t always decided in advance. And smart, confident looking people will have a far higher chance of being walked to the best spot.

Become a regular

“Nothing in life happens without hard work,” says Fernando. “If you want a good chance of getting a good table, you better be a friend of the restaurant.” And the only way to do that is to put in the time beforehand.

“There are a small group of people in London who do this. But they never eat at home – you open up their fridge and all you find is champagne and milk.” Fernando says. “It goes without saying that a regular will attract different treatment to a first time customer.”

Book at off-peak times – which might be different to what you think

How to get the best table in any restaurant
A much sought-after table at Hide, Ollie Dabbous' excellent new restaurant on Piccadilly

“You can get a very good table at any restaurant in the world, really, if you’re happy to eat at an off-peak time.” says Fernando. “But peak hours have changed dramatically in ten, twenty years.”

Whereas before the peak time may have been eight till ten, Fernando tells me it’s now closer to six till eight. “It’s a move to how things were in New York” he says. “People want to dine straight after work. They can’t leave central London and come back into the West End later on — there’s a congestion charge, there’s no parking anymore, and it takes twice as long as it did ten years ago.”

“We’re also getting up an hour earlier than we did in 1995.” he says. “That’s why there are so many breakfast meetings nowadays. Nine PM would have been the peak time twenty years ago. Book at nine now and you’ve got a good chance of getting a prime table.”

How to get the best table in any restaurant
The wonderfully traditional Le Gavroche, where the top tables are often reserved for regular diners

If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the concierge to book for you

“If I was staying in Milan or New York, perhaps this is what I’d do.” says Fernando. “Unfortunately, old school concierges like this are a bit of a dying breed. But there are still a few around the world who have very good relationships with the front of house staff at the city’s best restaurants.”

Don’t namedrop

“To me this is a very bad idea.” Fernando warns. “You’re playing a very, very dangerous game.”

“If anyone rings up and says they’re a friend of mine, I just tell my staff to exercise their usual discretion and not to necessarily give them preferential treatment” he tells me.

Being a member of the ‘celebrity club’ does not tend to impress most maitre d’s

“I’ve met thousands and thousands of people. Anyone could find out my name and mention it when they walk in,” he says. “But I see that as a gentle form of bullying. I’m not a fan.” Dropping the name of a famous friend, meanwhile, will probably be equally fruitless.  “Being a member of the ‘celebrity club’ does not tend to impress most maitre d’s.”

The Wolseley

Don’t say “I know you keep the best table aside for celebrities”

“This is a complete myth.” says Fernando. “I know of no restaurants who keep a prime table on the off chance a major celebrity walks in.” Much more likely is that the front of house will be clever with table timings, should they need to squeeze a high profile – and, more often than not, regular – customer in. “A good maitre d’ simply wouldn’t need to keep a table empty”

Never resort to a bribe

“I’m not a fan of that,” says Fernando. “It’s very crass.” There are ways, of course, of showing the front of house your appreciation. “This is a service industry after all” says Fernando. “If you had a lovely meal and the maitre d’ made your evening particularly enjoyable, I see no real problem with slipping him a personal tip – alongside the usual service contribution – on the way out.” If this makes you more memorable a customer next time you call up to book, he says, all the better. “But it should always be genuine – a genuine relationship, that’s what will make you a valued customer.”

Further Reading