I recently dined at an LA hot spot where it seemed that two-thirds of the diners were either hookers or women who looked like hookers (tight cocktail dresses, stilettos, and so on). My friend and I were dressed normally and were seated in a less "fun" part of the dining room, near a bunch of old people. Later, we saw the waiters seat a conspicuously frumpy couple behind a pillar at a tiny, tiny two-top. It was obvious they were being discriminated against because they weren't sexy. Do restaurants have a right to do this? And what's your recourse if you think you're getting the "looksist" treatment?
—My Money's as Good as the Hooker's
Dear My Money's as Good as the Hooker's,
Tight, short dresses and stilettos aren't reserved for hookers these days. The clothing you describe might simply be what is currently considered hot. Naturally, hotness will secure you a better table, as will fame and celebrity, at least at some restaurants. Most aren't willing to admit it, of course. I interviewed various maître d's and managers at glam hot spots in Los Angeles and New York, and the majority either denied discriminating when seating people or said they do so purely to make the customer happy (giving older couples quieter tables, for instance). But Michael Bailey, who has worked as maître d' at the New York–based Michael's and Lever House, says they're all lying: "If you have three supermodels or a really good-looking couple, you don't want to tuck them away in a dark corner; you want to showcase them like jewels."
Is it fair for an underwear model or just a fetching twentysomething to get a better table than you? No. But the fact is most of us like to ogle beautiful (or stylish) people and celebrities. As businesses, restaurants are bound to cater to that taste, the same way they put fresh flowers in their vases.
This doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to being seated next to the kitchen for the rest of your life. It's fine for guests to request a different table, says Marino Monferrato, general manager of Cecconi's in LA.
So although maître d's may try to shove you out of sight, if you ask to be moved, they will usually accommodate your request if they can. They're used to it. But be realistic: If you're a walk-in, don't expect a desirable table, and if you're a couple, don't expect to be seated at a four-top.
Another way to get a great table is to become a regular. Whereas famous and hot people may bring more business in the short term, most restaurant staff understand that repeat business is where the money is. When the gilded youth have moved on to the next hot restaurant, says Bailey, "what you have left is people living in the neighborhood and driving in from the suburbs—the middle layer."
You could also pick quieter restaurants with a clientele made up more of food-lovers than glitterati. Such places are easy to find, even in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. In some cities, like San Francisco, for instance, it's more the norm than the exception. Seating there tends to be democratic—so much so that it caused a minor scandal when former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown boasted of getting seated right away at Nopa, and Steve Jobs reportedly couldn't get seated at the massively popular restaurant Flour + Water.