The most hilarious bit of career advice I’ve ever heard was given to a friend of mine more than a decade ago: “You’re doing a good job and all,” her boss told her, “but I think it’s time to take your hostessing to the next level.”
My friend worked at a tiny, 30-table Mexican restaurant in the outer ’burbs and decoded “next level” as constant ebullience. Forget bubbly: When was the last time you walked into a busy D.C. restaurant and felt that the hostess particularly cared if you liked your seat?
Sonia Ahn, 27, has hosted at two restaurants along the U Street corridor. She was the first hostess at Local 16 when it opened in 2001 and also worked at Tabaq Bistro for a year, from 2005 to 2006. Her challenges at Tabaq included overseeing the most popular tables in the house—those in the top-floor “atrium”—and plotting a strategy for each night that integrated the floor plan, call-in reservations, online OpenTable schedule, and dreaded walk-ins.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” says Ahn. “Every one-and-a-half to two hours you have to change the formation.”
And rude customers are the pieces that the dog chewed up. According to Ahn, the quickest way to ruin the flow of the night—and get a bad table—is to get snippy with the hostess. “We do size [customers] up by their etiquette,” she says. “You don’t go up to a hostess and demand a table.”
Getting a “nonprime” seat for bad behavior isn’t just a matter of karmic revenge, either; it’s part of a larger system that rewards the best waiters. “If you’re more understanding about how a restaurant works,” explains Ahn, “you’re going to be a better tipper.” Other good bets for a decent tip are regulars, customers who’ve “reached their late 20s,” and large parties: “They have no choice,” Ahn points out.
And better tippers get better tables—which, not coincidentally, are covered by more-experienced servers. “The best waiters will always be working by the window,” says Ahn.
Window seats are the most popular in pretty much any restaurant, but the worst seats in the house depend on a number of factors. At Tabaq, the noisy, crowded tables near the bar are the least desirable.
I’ve been led to my share of cruddy tables—especially while dining at nice restaurants in an alt-weekly-salary wardrobe—and I’ve kept a running list of other undesirable spots: the table near the kitchen, the table in front of the entrance, the table against a wall (which reverberates din and is often drafty), the wobbly table, the table near a bunch of screaming kids, and, of course, the dreaded bathroom-side table.
A dining companion and I were once seated at an especially odd table at the underground Vidalia, tucked against a wall that emitted nauseating vibrations as cars passed overhead. Or perhaps it was the movement of the treadmills at the Washington Sports Club above. Thankfully, there wasn’t much time for speculation; we were granted a new seat with apologies and good cheer.
I think of myself as both polite and a good tipper, which goes to show that everyone is bound to get a bad table now and again—and that, as our government should note, profiling is a slippery business.
But you can’t really blame a busy hostess for playing the numbers game. Ahn offers a couple of no-nos for diners who want to decrease their odds of getting stuck sitting within a crowd of barflies—or within reach of the washroom attendant: “If people come up to us all pompous about who they are, this and that—if you were somebody, I would probably know who you were.
“And don’t ever slip us a dollar bill; we’ll hand it right back to you….We’re like, ‘What is this, for the parking meter? We don’t do dollar bills.
“If you give me a 20, then we’ll manage to find a table,” she says.
So basically, avoid making an asshole of yourself, or carry a fistful of $20s. “I sat a group of ladies down for dinner,” says Ahn, “and I’m Asian, so as soon as they saw me, they said, ‘Oh, do you serve sushi here?’”
Too bad they were already seated.