Money Can’t Buy You a Good Table

Our columnist explores the curse of poor restaurant seating.

As a test case, we waited until all the buzz on the place had died down. We made reservations for early in the evening, on a Tuesday. We didn’t use our real names. If all went according to plan, the place would be deserted when we got there.

And it was. The cheerful hostess showed no glimmer of recognition when my wife and I presented ourselves at her podium. As she led us by a sea of empty tables in the main dining room, I thought we might actually pull this thing off. Then she turned a corner and led us down a narrow corridor. At its end glowed the signs for the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Between the two doors was a temporary waiter’s stand where a busboy was removing some dirty dishes and glassware from a linen-draped tray.

Oh my God, she’s actually going to seat us at a waiter’s stand! Just as I started to make my protests, the hostess stopped at a tiny table that I hadn’t noticed, shoved against the wall about six feet from the men’s bathroom door. It was the only table in the corridor.

As she was laying down our menus, I asked in my most solicitous voice if we could perhaps be moved to one of the empty tables in the main dining room. Her demeanor changed instantly. “Those tables are reserved,” she snapped. “But we had reservations, too,” I said evenly, through clenched teeth. “Our guests specifically requested those tables.” End of discussion. She marched off, as if to warn security to keep an eye on the troublemaker.

You see, I get seated at bad tables. If there is a table getting knocked by the swinging kitchen door, if there is a wobbly, extra-small two-top wedged in a far-off corner behind a large dying fig plant, if there is a table next to a banquet of shouting drunk, out-of-town conventioneering dentists—that will be my table.

My jinx is so bad that it can infect even normal people who dine with us. People who are used to being seated at the center table in the main dining room at the Mansion suddenly find themselves sitting under a glowing “Exit” sign when they dine with us. It has gotten so bad that we’re finding it hard to get our friends to accept dinner invitations. (My wife suggests that the real reason is that I tend to drink too much and then lecture about race, religion, and politics, but what does she know?)

For a long while, I believed that my exile to Bad-Table Hell was the result of an innocent comment that I had once made to a passing hostess when, after sitting at a table for 20 minutes without even the appearance of a wait person, I cleverly requested if I could be moved to a table that came with service. She wasn’t charmed, and I had simply assumed that my comment had been circulated throughout the Dallas food service community. My wife likes to blame this column, but even she admits the problem was present when we first met.

The towering indignity of this insult is nigh unbearable. Dallas, where dining out is the second-most important activity after shopping, where who you know is not nearly as important as what restaurant you’re seen at, where the whole point of bad tables is to have capacity to accommodate people from Garland and Mesquite—and I’m banished to the table way off in the Kalaupapa leprosy colony, in plain and pitiless view of my friends. It’s debatable that money can’t buy happiness, but surely it should secure a table commensurate to my station.

Now, I must confess that there is one restaurant in Dallas, a very good restaurant, that without fail—and without our requesting it—seats us at its best tables. The food is pricey but delicious. The atmosphere is sleek and sophisticated. The service is friendly and attentive. None of that interests me in the least, of course, except that I’m able to sit grandly at a nice table.

But the weird thing is that on just about every AmEx statement, we’re tagged with random charges from this restaurant for $10 or $20, sometimes $30, on nights that we weren’t even there. Sometimes two or three in a month. At first I was inclined to call AmEx and have the charges reversed, but then I reconsidered. Discretion is the better part of self-delusion.

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