|The French Laundry restaurant|
Image courtesy of 1iverating.com
Don't get me wrong, I don't hold it against the French Laundry that it was so expensive, and I wasn't exactly forced to go there. I wanted to eat at this temple of gastronomy, and I'm happy that I did. But the tab is what I remember the most about eating there. And we had only ourselves to blame for that. Not only did we order the most expensive tasting menu option for our table that evening, of ten (or was it fifteen?) exquisite courses of one amuse-bouche delivered after another, but the person in our group who chose the wines that evening was a Pillsbury heir, and ordered them with abandon and no attention to what they cost. Ah, well, at least I am able to say on my deathbed that I once dined at the French Laundry.
|The entrance to Per Se|
Time Warner Center, New York
Image courtesy of josephbayot
Shortly after I joined the Investment Bank where I work, Thomas Keller opened Per Se--a sister restaurant to the French Laundry--in New York to much fanfare and excitement. Thought to be one of the most expensive restaurants in the city at the time it opened, Per Se was, and remains, famously difficult to get a reservation at due to the voracious demand for its highly coveted tables.
|The interior of Per Se, overlooking Central Park|
Image by Paxton of the New York Times
Given my experience at the French Laundry, though, and all the hype about Per Se's opening, I wasn't in a hurry to book a table there. But after several years had gone by, I was feeling flush and generous one afternoon (it was back in the day when my investment banking bonuses were far larger then than they are today), and I decided that I would book a table at Per Se, and take Boy there for dinner one night.
|Another view of the dining room at Per Se|
Image by Joe Fornabaio of the New York Times
I dialed the restaurant's number, and was pleased that the call went through and that I didn't get a busy signal. The phone rang and rang. That was odd, I thought, surely someone would have answered the phone by now, or at least it would have been picked up with a recording where I could leave a message. While holding on to the still-ringing phone I checked to see if I had the right number, and confirmed that I did. I let it ring several more times until, just as I was about to hang up, someone answered the phone.
"Yes?" they said.
"Hello," I said
"Hello," they answered.
"Is this Per Se?" I asked.
"Yes," they answered. Then nothing.
"Uh, I'm calling to make a reservation."
"I'd like to come for dinner."
"When would you like to come?" they asked.
"Well," I said, "I understand that you are quite busy, so I am prepared to be flexible as to when we come. Please let me know when you have a table for two available for dinner, and I'll see if that works for my calendar."
"I'm afraid we don't."
"You don't what?" I asked.
"We don't have any tables available."
"At all?" I asked.
"No, I am sorry but we are fully booked."
"For how long?" I asked.
"For as long as we are taking reservations," they said.
"Oh," I said, "how do I get a reservation, then?"
"I'm afraid you can't at the moment."
"But here's what you can do," they said, "call back tomorrow morning at exactly ten am. You will likely get a busy signal, but keep on trying and you just might get through if you put our telephone number into your speed dial and you keep redialing every time you get a busy signal. If you do get through, and if we do have any tables left, you will be able to book one for six months from the day you are calling."
"My goodness," I said, "six months?"
"Yes, six months. But I have to tell you, it is unlikely that if you do get through that we will have any tables available, as we only release just a few tables to callers. Most of our tables are already spoken for."
"Spoken for? What do you mean by that?" I asked.
"Reserved for friends of the restaurant, people who've eaten here before and whom we know."
"Is there a waiting list," I asked, "in case one of the restaurant's 'friends' doesn't choose to dine there one night?"
"Yes we do have a waiting list, but I'm afraid that we almost never go in to it, since people don't cancel reservations here. You can put your name down on our waiting list if you get through in the morning, but I am afraid it really won't do you any good."
"So," I asked, "how does a mere mortal such as I get a reservation at Per Se if the restaurant is fully booked in to perpetuity and you don't go into your waiting list?"
"I'm afraid you can't," they said.
"Okay, thanks," I said, "this is one of the weirdest conversations I have ever had. I'll see what my other options might be at another restaurant."
"I'm sorry that we aren't able to help you."
"Yes, me too. Thank you."
"Goodbye to you, too," I said and I hung up the phone.
I was dumbfounded at what had just transpired. I had never been told before when attempting to book a table at a restaurant that I should forget about ever getting in.
Later that evening, as I recounted my tale to Boy over a martini while seated comfortably in a banquette at L'Absinthe (one of our favorite restaurants in New York), we agreed that we would far rather spend our time and money frequenting restaurants where we could be assured of getting a table without having to "know someone," or having to grovel and beg for it. It seemed absurd to us that getting a reservation at Per Se appeared to be as likely as winning New York's "MegaMillions" Lottery.
|Another interior view of per se|
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
Several weeks later I was sitting in my office at the Investment Bank when a woman that I know and like poked her head in my door to say hello. I asked her to come in, and we sat talking for a bit, catching up. At one point the subject of restaurants came up, and I told her about my bizarre conversation with the person who picked up the phone at Per Se.
"Wait a minute," she said, "I just went there last week, it was fabulous. I loved it!"
"How did you get a table there?" I asked, incredulous.
"I went there with the consumer products team. Blair decided last week that he wanted to take the team out for a celebration, and he took a dozen of us to Per Se for dinner. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing, with no more than a couple of days notice."
"What?" I said, "Do you mean to tell me that he was able to get a table for twelve to have dinner at Per Se with only a few day's advance notice? I was told that I couldn't get a table there for two for the rest of my life!"
"Oh, you should ask the people in events planning to get you in, they book tables there all the time." she said.
"No way," I said, fuming, "Now I really don't want to ever go there."
But my experience with Per Se is far from unique, I have learned. I've had at least half a dozen conversations with other New Yorkers over the years who've related similarly strange experiences with that restaurant. One of the more memorable ones was from someone who got a tongue-lashing when they politely declined the opportunity to have dinner there at 5:30 one night, after receiving a call from the restaurant only minutes beforehand with the joyous news that they had miraculously made it off the restaurant's waiting list.
|The kitchen at Per Se|
Image courtesy of Luxeat.com
I would imagine that it is no longer absolutely and categorically impossible for mere mortals such as Reggie to get a reservation at Per Se any more, given what's happened to the economy and the avalanche of new and luxurious restaurants that have opened in the city since Per Se came on the scene. The people I've spoken with who've eaten there have uniformly said that the experience and the food is sublime, which I would expect, given Per Se's Michelin three star status. Even so, I don't have any desire to try and book a table there, given my rather Kafka-esque experience with it and what I've heard from some others about theirs. There are many other wonderful restaurants in New York that I would much rather go to, where I am confident that my patronage is desired and where I will be welcomed with open arms.
|The Master in his kitchen|
Image courtesy of terenceford.com
But I don't think the news that Reggie is giving Per Se a "pass" would concern Thomas Keller one bit. Nor should it, so long as the accolades continue to mount up and the telephone keeps ringing off the hook . . .
Tell me, have you had any similarly bizarre restaurant experiences?