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Jun 6, 2010 12:17 AM

Question about "regular" status, VIP, special treatment, etc

Hi all,

Long time reader and first time poster here!

Anyway, I was curious about this subject and was hoping some of you can shed some light on this. I've noticed--based on my experiences, those of friends, and from what I've read online--that there can be some interesting perks for certain customers in higher end Manhattan restaurants. Obviously VIPs and friends of the house get these, but I'm more interested about the "treats" regulars, or more interestingly, first-timers can receive.

For example, I've heard it's not uncommon for folks to be offered a complimentary glass of champagne at Le Bernardin or Per Se--even if it's their first visit and they have no connections. Also, some "regulars" can get a few extra treats from the kitchen on occasion from Per Se, EMP, etc. I've always wondered why, for example, after I referred two different people (with no connections, not in the industry, and both ordering the same tasting menu) to Le Bernardin on separate occasions one was offered free champagne almost immediately and later the signature dessert egg, but the other received the standard (still excellent) experience.

That's the background, here are my two main questions:

1. What determines whether a first-timer is offered "special treatment," for lack of a better word? I don't mean to imply that the standard treatment is subpar, I'm just referring to things that go beyond the normal experience.

2. How is "regular" status determined at the top level of Manhattan restaurants, and how does this affect the dining experience? How many times must one dine to be considered a "regular" at Per Se, EMP, Daniel, etc? And does it even matter?

I look forward to everyone's responses and hope some people are as interested in this as I am. Thanks!

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019

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  1. If you make it known to the restaurant that you're having a celebratory meal (e.g. birthday, anniversary etc.), they'll often provide a little something extra, such as an extra dessert or a glass of champagne.

    I also find that solo diners often get a little VIP treatment, even if they are "first-timers". Restaurants at this level understand that solo diners are not there for ancillary reasons (e.g. meeting with friends, talking business with colleagues); they are there to just eat, making a very specific choice to dine at that particular restaurant. Often, they will get extras as well, especially if they engage with the service staff during the meal.

    Of course, VIPs in the industry will get the special treatment. Extra and comped savory courses are rare for others, but important industry people often receive them. French Laundry and Per Se are especially well-known for this practice.

    As for "regular" status, there are essentially two ways to get it:
    1) Repeated visits to the restaurant; they will keep track on their reservation system or
    2) Spend a *lot* on wine for one meal

    I wouldn't worry too much about it. #1 will work by itself if you like the restaurant a lot.

    Per Se
    10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

    1. "What determines whether a first-timer is offered "special treatment," for lack of a better word"

      Could be anything. The same sort of thing that gets you upgraded on flight reservations or hotel bookings.

      I recently went to a localish restaurant which offers three "surprise" tasting menus (at differing prices) - you have to say at the time of reservation which you want to eat. We'd booked the mid-range one but when we got there, the server said that the chef was going to upgrade us as he thought we would enjoy the experience. He & I contribute to another well known food/restaurant board so I can only assume that was the reason and he wanted to take care of someone he sort of knew, if only vaguely and certainly only virtually.

      1. There any number of reasons why a guest may get unexpected VIP treatment or not.

        First example: You're slam-full on a Saturday night. At that point the kitchen's primary responsibility is to make sure that every diner has a great experience. When you're trying to keep your line out of the weeds, you just may not have time for those little extras. On the other hand, if you're line is already out of control, it's always a good idea to send out an amuse or mid-course treat so that the guest can feel pampered while they wait a little longer for their order. A good FOH manager who knows that the kitchen is slammed when the table is seated may bring over a glass of champagne to help with the pacing of the meal and buy the line some breathing room.

        Second example: A slow Tuesday evening. Pacing isn't a problem on a night like this, but these are the people you want coming back every week to make your mid-week numbers. The kitchen has a little time on their hands, so why not use it to come up with something thoughtful and spoil your guests a little?

        In these cases, the VIP treatment is less about who you are than about when you show up.

        1. As to your first question, special treatment could be offered upon expressing great interest in an item on the menu, but not ordering it, perhaps because of expense or just not sure if you'd like it. Perhaps the person waiting on you relayed that interest to the chef, and he has the time and inclination to offer up a small taste of what you had expressed interest in.

          As to being a regular - Frequency of dining there usually does it. Also, bringing others there to dine with you and tipping well. I'm not sure if it can be broken down to "how many times"'s just that they recognize you. That you've been going there every couple of weeks for a couple of ask for a particular waiter whose service you were appreciative of the last time you were there...all sorts of reasons that just tend to combine into a recognition of someone who enjoys the restaurant and atmosphere, and they want to continue adding to your enjoyment by treating you a bit more special.

          1. Thanks for the input! I had assumed there were a variety reasons for all of this, I just wasn't sure what they were.

            I have noticed, for example, that when I've gone to Per Se and talked food with the staff, asked questions, etc, I've gotten some extras that people who were clearly there on business didn't. Considering some of the people in that dining room, I guess it must be a breathe of fresh air to have someone who's totally there for the food rather than to impress the potential new client!!