Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why I Will Never Eat at Per Se

Many years ago, in the mid-1990s, Boy and I had dinner with a group of friends at Thomas Keller's iconic, verging-on-mythic, French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California.  As most of my readers well know, the French Laundry has--more than once--been judged to be the best restaurant in all of America, and regularly ranks in critic's polls among the top five-to-ten restaurants in the world.  Our dinner there was one of the most incredible, transcendent, and expensive meals I have ever eaten.  At $500 a head, which is what I distinctly remember it cost, I can say with assurance that it was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten.  In my life.  Even though I knew it would be costly going into it, I was still shocked at the final tab.

The French Laundry restaurant
Yountville, California
Image courtesy of

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."

"For what?"

"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."


"Yes, really."

"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

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

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?


  1. The hauteur of "Reservationists" at in demand restaurants is truly astonishing, and utterly maddening. It brings out the worst of my snobbism and invariably tempts me to say "Sweetheart, you're just a low level secretary attempting to humble people who wouldn't spit in your direction. Your not taking appoitments for Dr. DeBakey". Naturally, I never say it, but I have said, with all sincerity to a particularly insufferable woman "oh, I'll just wait until you're all going out of business". And they invariably will. Nothing lasts forever, especially in the quixotic world of fashionable New York restaurants where there are countless examples of today's impossible to get into dining spot fading into oblivion in a nano second. Two examples- The Monkey Bar which doesn't have a phone number and accepts reservations only by email- all for the sheer joy of dining among tacky financial finaglers and Seventh Avenue underwear mavens and Le Caprice at the Pierre. On three occasions I arrived with a confirmed reservation to be greeted by a distracted and disinterested Maitre D' who glanced repeatedly at me, at his reservation book and at the three quarters empty dining room, shaking his head and making clucking noises and finally sighing "I'll see what I can do". (I was, by the way, more than suitably dressed). When last I heard, they were participating in Restaurant week. I'm just sayin'. My sense is that the era of patrons permitting themselves to be badly treated for the pleasure of parting with too much of their hard earned money has come to an end. And good riddance.

  2. I can only say, I agree with your decision, wholeheartedly.

  3. Magnus: You nailed it! Terrific comment, I always look froward to seeing your byline when I check for comments. Thank you.

    Aesthete: Reggie is honored of your visit, and heartened that you and I see eye to eye on this.

  4. Dear Reggie, No, I really cannot bear this restaurant snobbishness, perpetuated in London by The Ivy, etc. etc. I often like to eat out on the spur of the moment and could not possibly tolerate booking six months or an eternity in advance.

  5. And Reg- one more thing:

    Your Pillsbury heir deserves a swift kick in the keester. Basic good manners demand that anyone who comandeers the winelist take into account the pocketbook of the the least flush in the group, unless they plan to pay for it themselves. Basic common sense also argues against "going for broke" with the wine list: A few years ago I attended a lecture given by the famous sommelier, Kevin Zraly. He said that only a fool or a man with money to burn spends more than $75 for a bottle of wine at a restaurant- if the restaurant's sommelier is "worth his salt", that $75 bottle should be delicious, and given the mark-up on wine charged by restaurants, you are far better off saving the same money and buying the bottle at your local liquor store. It was music to my ears, needless to say.

  6. Reggie, what a great post and comments.
    Thomas Keller's restaurant Bouchon in Beverly Hills was totally unbookable for the first 6 months, then the newness of it wore off and dinner reservations, at normal times, not 5:30, became available. I've dined there twice and the food is mediocre.

    Really, even with three stars, how good can Per Se be to have such an attitude.

    This story reminds me of trying to get a reservation at Taillevent in Paris 30 years ago. But the food at Taillevent really was outstanding.

  7. However much I revere good service, good food and lovely ambiance,
    I have zero interest in these temples of gastronomy. To be held in icy
    contempt by staff who preside over reservations~there's something terribly wrong here. But let's say you finally procure that elusive table.
    The expectation would invariably outweigh the final experience~at least
    that's been my experience. And all that solemnity surrounding the presentation of a meal? Spare me.

  8. Well said! A restaurant may be the latest thing, but really, if they fail to foster good will, who cares? "We're so fabulous, you can't eat here"? When dining out, from the humblest local eatery to the finest cuisine, the most important thing, fully equal to the quality of the meal, is the graciousness of it's service. Their failure to accommodate you is most assuredly their loss.

  9. Ha! Having worked in restaurants for decades, I know a bit about what goes on behind the scene. I wonder who finally answered the ringing telephone - probably the guy mopping the floor! There is nothing sacred behind the curtain.

  10. Reggie, what a marvelous and hysterical creative writing piece! You have an incredible knack at writing a clever and entertaining script, bravo. Surely this couldn’t have happened from the restaurant that has been crowned with Best Service in Zagat since inception. While I may not have always been able to catch the illusive table for 2, I have always been treated kindly by their staff.

  11. As I'm usually the invitee to establishments like Per Se (but not Per Se, per se) I've never had the pleasure of your Twilight Zone phone call - it makes for a hell of a story though - lol!

    It reminds me of nightclubs back in the day. My friends would stand in line to be allowed in. Outside. In New England. In the winter. When there are hundreds of perfectly good bars with food, liquor and no line.

    Thomas Keller cooked for a benefit at a friend's house in Maine this summer. $250 per person - sounds like a better deal.

  12. I've met Thomas Keller at a function at Copia in Napa (now no more) and I can attest that he is the nicest, down-to-earth guy from the realms of dining nirvana that you'll ever meet. We were planning a trip to Paris with our teenage daughter and were looking for a suitable bistro. He spent a considerable time talking to us about Paris and food. As per his suggestion we went to the "perfect" bistro--totally French, no one spoke English, the Beaujolais Nouveau had just arrived and the food was heaven. Our now Vassar sophomore still raves about " the best chocolate dessert ever". You will be well taken care of if you put yourself in the kind and knowledgeable Mr Keller's hands.

  13. That is truly wretched! I can't believe they did that to you. I have to say that I've never had anything like this occur anywhere. I don't blame you, Reggie. It's one thing to be exculusive. It's quite something else to act like a complete and utter snot.

    It's been my experience, though, with "difficult" businesses, that if they are doing it to me, they are certainly doing it to others. They usually fold, too.

    I will definitely not try to book there ever. I've only had wonderful experiences when I've visited NYC, and I don't want that record dimmed by some supercillious jerks, no matter how sublime the cuisine is supposed to be. Thanks for the fair warning.

  14. Dear Reggie, I agree with your decision also. Magnus is so right sbout the Pillsbury heir. Between the concierges and certain corporations they deal with, no one else has a chance. Who knows what one is going to be doing in six months. I'd be happy to give it a miss. Best Always, CW

  15. I am glad you stuck to your guns and did not make the reservation. It disgusts me that restaurants won't make reservations for anybody that hasn't already been there or a friend of a friend. I hope it goes out of business (I know that isn't nice) but I know it won't, people always want what they can't have even if it mediocre.

  16. Reggie --

    1) I seem to recall that the managing partner of at least one Manhattan law firm makes the very same excuse to his wife whenever she suggests they go there. (And still he manages to dine there twice a month, with his girl of the moment.)

    2) Now that you've given up on Per Se, why not try taking Boy to Rao's?

    P.S. This is why gentlemen have clubs -- as in
    "Club is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in -- and feed you."

  17. Bizzare and outrageous! The phone conversation almost seemed like a skit from SNL!

    I would have come to the same conclusion, no meal is worth that little game!

  18. I have not had the opportunity to dine at one of Mr. Keller's establishments, and from the sound of things, I would not likely be able to get a reservation. About 8 or 9 years ago, my aunt and cousin were visiting from the other side of the country. My aunt wanted to try a celebrity chef restaurant in the city where my mother lived. Reservations were made, but my mother hesitated due to a number of serious food allergies. We convinced her to join us and at least have tea and dessert. The staff were wonderful. They carefully reviewed her allergies, then devised a chicken and pasta dish for her, and actually paid attention to plate presentation. It may have been the only time she had anything other than a dry, overcooked skinless, boneless chicken breast and dry baked potato at a fine dining restuarant. The celebrity chef was working the dining room and stopped by to commiserate about food allergies - his young son has allergies as well. My mother died about a year later, and I believe that evening was a high point for her. There are plenty of excellent restaurants that are willing to treat customers with dignity and respect.

  19. Belle de Ville: Interesting, indeed. Reggie is surprised the food was mediocre, though. TK is a master at his art, in Reggie's (one time) experience.

    Toby W: You may well be on to something. It's hard to live up to the hype.

    Stephanie: You are indeed correct: these are service establishments, a point lost on many of those involved.

    Jane: You are probably right! I hadn't thought of that.

    JEW: I am sure, that once through the door, one's experience at Per Se would be lovely. In Reggie's case, though, he was not welcomed through the door in the first place...

  20. Magnus

    When I was in Brussels one year for my birthday I decided to invite some good friends who lived there to celebrate for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, the Per Se of the times. It was my invitation but when it came time to order drinks my friend's husband said, "Oh, but we must celebrate with a bottle of Champagne" and proceeded to order the most expensive Champagne on the list. I thought, how nice of him, assuming he would pick up the tab for the Champagne at the end of the meal. Actually, insisting to pick it up. When the tab came, there it was, and not a move from said "friend" to pick up the wine!

    Reggie - One day having lunch with a girlfriend at Mortimer's, we were surprised to be seated in one of the "hallowed" tables by the windows. When Glenn B. came out and saw the mistake he tried to get us moved. Guess what happened next....

  21. Incidentally, I agree with Jane. I think Reggie D was taken for a fun ride! But what a great story, almost as good as one of my favorites, The Theatuh!

  22. Patsy: Doesn't it, though? I am sure that your dinner in Maine must have been wonderful, and at half the price of what Reggie paid for his dinner at French Laundry 13 years ago!

    Baker Martin: I have heard from more than one patron at Per Se that Thomas Keller is a lovely person. Unfortunately it doesn't always trickle down to the people that work for him.

    Anon 2:37: Thank you

    Anon 3:36: Magnus raised an interesting point about the Pillsbury heir. He (the heir) wasn't particularly bright, and a rather nice fellow, so I didn't begrudge him at the time. I'm wiser now...

    Mary Beth: I don't wish Per Se ill, only that its staff (at least those who answer the phone) had better manners when dealing with the public.

  23. Ancient: As always, wise and amusing. I count on you to get us a table for dinner at Rao's, as I know you are better at these things than I. Thank you.

    A&A: Reggie is pleased you thought the exchange worthy of a skit on SNL. He found it quite comical himself, and has played it in a number of drawing rooms over the years, to the hilarity of his audience.

    DocP: What a lovely story.

  24. Have you ever seen the AbFab skit in which Eddie is greeted by an art gallery assistant who has all the charm of your receptionist at Per Se? Eddie's response to her was: "I'd drop the attitude if I were you. You're only a shop clerk!". I was unfortunately able to use the same line with an "up herself" receptionist at Conran's Bluebird in the King's Road. Now of course they practically give tables away, and the food is very mediocre. These people have to remember on which side of the counter they are standing.

  25. Lindaraxa: I don't think I was being taken for a fun ride, I recall that the person I spoke with was actually quite knowledgeable, and spoke with authority (and her speech about calling back at ten am the next day was obviously one she'd given many times before). Obviously, Reggie thinks this is a funny story, or he wouldn't have shared it with his readers.

    Oh, and by the way, I'm working on my review of Swifty's, in which I also recall my times at Mortimer's as a laddie years ago...stay tuned, it's a bit of a romp!

    Columnist: I adored AbFab when it was on the telly here in the colonies, but I don't remember that episode. Sounds hilarious!

  26. The best restaurant experiences I've had are only sometimes at the best restaurants. As I get older (and poorer---bankers are not the only ones), I grow impatient with pretension confused with elegance. At my last outing at our own local fine dining temple, martinis arrived with fruit flies floating in them, crabcakes were frighteningly less than fresh, and the owner less than smooth at dealing....give me the great little bistrot every time. The grand joints were fun in my youth, but been there, done that.

  27. Clearly this is embelished. The restaurant takes reservations two months in advance, not six. Additionally, even if they did have a policy such as you described with regard to their waitlist they would never explain it to you in detail. Nice 'story' though...

  28. Well, dear Reggie, it was the only thing I could think of... it is so unbelievably rude it's comical. I bet Jon Stewart would kill for that script though!

  29. Sir Reginald -- one correction, if you please--
    you, a mere mortal, I don't think so.
    Just say no to hauty attitude.

  30. One summer abroad I... I won't go there. Please tell me you're pulling my leg. I can't believe you stayed on the line so long. Sooner or later these types of establishments fall by the wayside.
    It's a shame you weren't trying to go on one of the days the above photos were taken. It appears there were plenty of tables available at that time.

  31. DED: Reggie adores a cozy bistro, and if he had to eat a final meal it would be in one. However, he still likes going out to swell restaurants from time to time, but makes sure he only goes to ones that will take a reservation from him with pleasure.

    Anon 3:05: This is the conversation exactly as I recall it.

    Lindaraxa: You are a treasure, indeed.

    BarbaraG: Most amusing, thank you.

    CJ/Rick: I stayed on the line so long because I found the conversation absolutely fascinating...I had the same reaction when studying the photos, too. Thank you for your comment.

  32. Reggie,
    So funny! I agree with Lindaraxa that not since, "The Theatuh," have I chuckled so! What said it best was: "But the tab is what I remember the most about eating there."
    Enjoy L'Absinthe - life is to short and too sweet!
    Barbara (Mrs. Marciano)

  33. I have just found your blog and must say, I love your style of writing! I'll be checking in with you often. Your phone conversation sounds like some kind of joke, but having had a similar experience I know the reality of your situation. There are far too many amazing restaurants in the city to go where you have to beg to get a seat...that is so not my style.

  34. Mrs. Marciano: Thank you, Reggie endeavors to amuse his readers.

    Hamptontoes: Thank you for visiting and for your comment. Reggie is heartened to learn that he isn't the only one who has had such an experience.

  35. I tend to eat in places where the only question is "Do you want fries with that?", but this was a very funny post even to me! I love the idea of the benefit meal - to get the marvelous food in salubrious surroundings while raising money for a good cause seems perfect to me. How about hosting one at Darlington so we can all enjoy it vicariously?

  36. I have yet to dine in a place that is so outstanding that it merits such a ridiculous treatment of its patrons. Honestly, I do better than most in my modest kitchen,

  37. In 1998 we were living in London and invited friends to join us for dinner at Gordon Ramsay's L'Oranger in St. Jameses. Reservations were made and on the day of the reservation we received a call to reconfirm, which we did. When we arrived at the restaurant at 8pm there was no one there. The door was locked and there was hand-written "restaurant closed" sign on the door.

    What was totally weird is that this was one of the top restaurants in London and there was no one there assisting guests who had reservations. NO ONE!

    It was the day Gordon staged an infamous walk-out of his restaurants L'Oranger and Aubergine after a feud with his backers.

    So "screw you dear guests". Kinda like Per Se.

  38. hi reggie,

    i was sent her by edith hope and am not disappointed. normally i would read a few pages of a new blog before i comment, but i can see that it is not necessary for me to do that here.

    i think thomas keller is a god but you can never eat at per se b/c then this killer story would be ruined.


  39. I have never suffered anything quite like that, nor even close; Thats really outrageous! I woudldn't go at all after that, not even if they paid me!

  40. HUH? per se has dreadful interior design, I don't even know what to call it...
    I couldn't eat in such ugly surroundings anyways, I have a very sensitive stomach.

    Very true about London, but one excepts snobbiness there, in NYC it just doesn't have the same charm.

  41. We had lunch last Thursday at Bouchon in Yountville. (and isn't Yountville lovely!) The food and wine were delicious, but the dining room was deafening and oh my, the service. Lunch for six lasted three hours. The two-top next to us turned over twice during our meal.

    Dinner that evening was at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa. MUCH more relaxed, excellent service, and every bit as tasty.

  42. I wrote an entire essay (I think you would have loved it) about Wolfgang Puck in the early days....and Spago.....and how he fired his jerk on the phone who spoke to me just like that guy soon as Wolf found out!

    then, after 5 paragraphs.......I pushed the wrong button......and poof!

    oh well.........Wolf fired "Henri"...maybe Mr. Keller doesn't know.

    He was lovely when we were at the french laundry 30 years ago...not pretentious at all........

    who knows?

    I wouldn't go there either!

  43. RD, Ugh! Why would you even want to dine in the TWC? The room, from the pictures at least, has that ghastly corporate board room look- like an upscale chain least Grenouille has ambient charm! Knowing the huge check was coming would give me serious indigestion anyway.


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