Securing a reservation at the hottest fine dining restaurants is no easy feat in culinary cities like Tokyo, which boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, and New York, where many celebrity chefs have set up shop with a number of VIP dining experiences on offer.
Sometimes it’s not who you know or how much you pay that gets you in the door and seated at the best table. Scoring a coveted seat at a hot restaurant might be easier than you think. We asked top chefs, sommeliers and restaurant staff from around the world to share their tips and secrets so you can up the ante on your dining experiences during your travels. From how to get a reservation at some of the toughest tables to how to order off “secret menus” to scoring free food and drinks, our VIP dining guide has you covered.
How to get reservations at high-demand restaurants
- Book in advance — at least one week prior for lunch and at least one month in advance for special occasions like New Year’s Eve, advises Sebastien Dehaye, manager of Pierre in the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
- Book online with an explanation well in advance or call on the day you wish to dine to see if there were any cancellations. “Try to be as flexible as possible,” advises Chef Richie Lin of MUME in Taipei, Taiwan, a modern restaurant that focuses on exploring local ingredients. Provide multiple day and time slots when you are available. If you do get a reservation, make sure you show up. One no show could get you blacklisted.
- “If you are told there is a waiting list of two to three months, try to find another solution. Find out the name of the general manager on LinkedIn and email him or her directly,” suggests Davy Hin, manager of Bistrot B at the Rosewood Beijing, one of the Chinese capital’s most innovative restaurants. If you work in the hospitality industry, mention your professional interest and you may even get a better table and lots of attention.
- If your desired dining date or time is unavailable, don’t hesitate to put yourself on the waiting list. Things happen and the restaurant will be constantly reviewing its reservation status,” said Vivian Ho, director of RAW in Taipei, Taiwan. “As soon as we have guests cancel their reservation, we will pick up guests from our waiting list to fill the seats.”
- “Keep the number of people in your party small: two to four guests maximum,” said Chef Bobby Stoky of Marker 88 in Islamorada, Florida. “Many restaurants have a hard time seating large parties, so the smaller the party, the better the chance of getting a reservation.”
How to get the best table
- Ask, advises Stoky of Marker 88, who said the best table at his restaurant, which offers indoor and outdoor seating on the beach, is the table under the arbor. It’s directly on a point, on Florida Bay, so diners are separated from the other restaurant patrons and have the best view.
- Know which table to request. According to Dehaye, the best table at Pierre is Table M1; it has a view of the entire Victoria Harbour from the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s 25th floor.
- Email the general manager of the restaurant and, if you work in the hospitality industry, mention it. “If you are not working in hospitality, try to get introduced by a regular customer, or friend of a friend, and so on. Again, Linkedin is great to find out who has a connection with you and the restaurant contact,” said Hin of Bistrot B.
How to get “face time” with the chef, particularly a celebrity chef
- It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s possible to meet the chef by asking if he or she is in. “Chefs will normally be very busy during service but when things settle down, [they] like to check on the diners and a compliment goes a long way,” said Chef Don Berger of Don’s in Hanoi, Vietnam.
- Ask in advance, advises Lin of MUME, which is run by a trio of chefs including Lin, Long Xiong and Kai Ward.
- “Celebrity chefs are hard to get. Try letting the staff know it’s a special occasion, your anniversary, for example. You can do it openly or in a more subtle way,” said Hin of Bistrot B, which is helmed by Chef Jarrod Verbiak, a former protégé of celebrity Chef Daniel Boulud. “Service staff will usually inform the maître d’ and then there is a follow-up. After the meal, you can try asking to express your gratitude to the chef if none of the above worked.”
- “Reserve our chef’s table and you will be able to have firsthand interaction with our Head Chef Alain Huang and watch everything that’s going on inside our kitchen,” said Ho of RAW.
- “Celebrity chefs are celebrity chefs because they interact with their customers,” said Stoky of Marker 88. “Ask if the chef is in house while you are dining, and then ask if he or she will stop by the table.”
- “Go against the norm and ask to sit near the kitchen,” said Justin Ross, co-owner of Parallel 38 in Charlottesville, Va. “Most chefs, including ours, expedite from outside the kitchen as the last set of eyes on the food. If you are seated near them you can hear all the good and bad that comes with that and perhaps they can hear the same from your table. The best ones will take the opportunity to hear criticism or praise and step in to speak with you directly.”
How to discover if there is a “secret menu”
- Do your homework. Check blog posts about the restaurant or review sites to see if there are some dishes mentioned that are not on the menu. Then, try to order them in advance. Ask at the time you make your reservation. Dehaye reveals there are “secret” vegetarian and vegan menus at Pierre, in addition to the fine French fare that can be tailor made to diners.
- Ask for the chef special or ask the chef to cook his choice for you. Be sure to specify any allergies or dislikes. “If you are a regular, the chef will usually be happy to prepare something special to introduce you to it,” said Hin of Bistrot B.
- “Many restaurants will have a “captain’s list,” or a reserve list that will be brought only to wine enthusiasts or regulars,” said Higor Valle, sommelier of steakhouse and craft bar The Continental in Naples, Fla. “However, if any patron asks to see this selection, I will gladly present it and provide a detailed description of the wines. By doing that, you might end up with a fantastic bottle from a library release or very limited production. It’s a win-win situation.”
- Ask about seasonal menus and ingredients for options that may not be on the menu year round.
How to identify a restaurant’s signature drinks and dishes
- “Asking a chef the question ‘what is your signature dish’ makes me tired,” said Berger, whose restaurant serves wood-fire-grilled USDA prime rib-eye cut to order; creamy fettuccine carbonara with imported pork neck pancetta, mushrooms, parmigiano, and egg; and traditional Vietnamese dishes like bánh xèo, a crisp egg pancake with shrimp and pork. “It is the most over used question as I have scores of signature dishes. Why not tell us what makes you happiest, and let us see if we can blow you away with the memory of your lifetime.”
- Do some research. “Nowadays, everything has been photographed and published on the Internet,” said Lin of MUME, where recent dishes included Wagyu tartare with clam mayo and confit egg yolk and Taiwanese dried radish.
- Ask the sommelier for recommendations or order the wine pairings suggested as an add on to the set menus, suggests Kimberley Chang, sommelier at RAW, whose restaurant offers a selection of biodynamic wines picked by Chef Andre Chiang and imported from France.
- “When I go to a restaurant, I ask the server what their favorite dish is… on or off the menu,” said Stoky of Marker 88. “That typically gets me headed in the right direction and, if their suggestion is not something I am interested in, I ask what the customers’ favorite dishes are.”
- “Avoid modifying the recipe or preparation, and always ask for the expert’s recommendation — be it the chef, sommelier or bartender,” said Valle of The Continental. “They spend a great deal of time putting these drinks and dishes together, and they will be delighted to describe and explain why they became signature items.”
How to get “free” stuff like desserts and beverages
- Specify if there is an occasion like a birthday, celebrations or anniversary
- “Compliment the service team or chef. You may get lucky,” said Hin of Bistrot B.
- “Ask your server plenty of questions. Be interested in them. How long have they worked there? Where are they from? Ask them about their families,” said Stoky of Marker 88. “Most servers have some latitude when it comes to serving guests, and they may be able to do something special for your table.”
- Join loyalty clubs for special offers and benefits like the ICHK Dining Club, which is mainly for frequent InterContinental Hong Kong patrons. Look to see if the restaurant has any partnerships. The InterContinental Hong Kong has partnerships with the Hong Kong Arts Festival and Hong Kong Ballet since most of the performances are at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel. Upon presentation of your Hong Kong Arts Festival Ticket or Hong Kong Ballet ticket on the performance date, diners get 15 percent off food and beverage in InterContinental’s five restaurants.
How to get a kitchen tour
- A request may or may not be granted depending on how busy the restaurant is, but there is no harm in asking. Make sure you book your table at a later time, so the kitchen is all finished and cleaned beforehand.
- “Most restaurants would love to show off their kitchens but during peak dining hours it just isn’t safe,” said Ross of Parallel 38.
- “If you are passionate about the kitchen and cuisine like we are, we can feel it!” said Ho of RAW. “Kindly ask for a kitchen tour directly. If our kitchen is not busy and our head chef is available, we will take you on one.”
How to get a seat at the chef’s table
- “Our restaurant has an open kitchen so all guests feel like they have a seat at the chef’s table,” said Hin of Bistrot B. “For other restaurants, usually only celebrities or high profile guests will be invited to a chef’s table.” Hin’s advice: get to know the people who are invited to the chef’s table.
- Check the restaurant website or call the reservation number to find out when reservations are taken for the chef’s table. Call the restaurant’s phone line at the designated time, advises Ho of RAW, which accepts reservations for its chef’s table every first Tuesday of each month from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST. If the chef’s table reservations are full, call or email the restaurant and request to be added to the waiting list.
How to save money on the bill without sacrificing quality and experience
- Ask if there are any special promotions going on, said Jared Ringel, of DC Harvest in Washington, D.C., an H Street eatery that reimagines comfort food with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients from local farms and vendors, that Ringel co-founded in 2014 with his brother Chef Arthur Ringer.
- “Sitting at the bar and sharing a couple of appetizers always deliver a good experience. By doing that, you have the chance to try several different dishes at a more casual pace/environment without breaking the bank,” said Valle of The Continental. “As far as wine, look for countries/regions that represent value such as Chile, South Africa and Washington.”
- Go during Happy Hour or on special evening events,” said Ross of Parallel 38, which offers two-for-one small plates on More Mezze Wednesdays. Research in advance, looking out for special promotions. Many restaurants will post promotions on their social media channels.
The secret to having a great dining experience
- “There is no secret. Being polite usually works. Everyone appreciates that, especially service teams,” said Hin of Bistrot B. “Being nice can go a long way.”
- “Be ready for an adventure. Be an adventurous eater and be willing to accept suggestions,” said Stoky of Marker 88. “Oftentimes, when I go out to eat, I’ll just ask for the chef’s tasting menu, and with just a few questions from my server about number of courses and any food allergies, likes and dislikes, we’re off to a great culinary experience.”
- “We keep a history of all the diners so when they come the second time, we will be able to pull up your history and know ahead of time their preferences already,” reveals Dehaye of Pierre. “If you had a particular seat, we would seat the guest at the same table same as the previous time.”
- If you had a great meal ask the chef, the manager or the owner where they would recommend going next, said Berger of Don’s.
- “Be curious and be creative,” said Ho of RAW. “Ask us questions, and we will be so excited to share with you what RAW is all about.”
Main image: istockphoto.com/knape