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To Seat and Be Seen

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At Tempo in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the rock-star table has a direct view of the restaurant door and a privileged view of all diners. (Talia Berman/CNS)

To get a table at Blue Ribbon Restaurant in New York City's Soho neighborhood, one must wade through the crowd at the seven-seat bar to the host standing guard in front of a huge round booth in the middle of the room. The leather seat back obscures a view of who sits at this table, but the other diners can catch a glimpse at the people dining luxuriously around this throne of a booth.

This, in restaurant-speak, is the phenomenon of the rock-star table. Almost every restaurant has at least one--the big booth at the back, the largest table in the restaurant, the table that is at once tucked away and highly visible. That special table is saved for just the right type of people, those who are either famous or attractive.

At Tempo in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the rock-star table has a direct view of the restaurant door and a privileged view of all diners; it's elevated on its own platform at the back of the restaurant. On a recent Saturday night, that’s where Silvia Cabrera, 28, and three friends sat. “The host told us he was taking us to the rock-star table,” she said. “We were four young ladies all dressed up, and I don’t think it hurt that everyone else in the restaurant was nerdy or middle-aged.”

At A12 in San Francisco, there are three rock-star tables: one round table--the only one in the restaurant--and two booths in the back. “With more than one good table, we can try to accommodate everybody,” operations manager Lydia Ruggiero said.

At Montreal’s Cafeteria, a restaurant and club that prides itself on filling up with beautiful women every night (“We usually have about 60 percent hot girls,” said manager Daniel Phelan), two elevated booths at the window are “prime real estate,” he added, because of their direct line of sight to bustling St. Laurent Street. Passers-by can see in as well as diners can see out.

Few would claim that the experience of eating in a restaurant is simply about the food. “Which table you get can be the difference between a good dining experience and an unforgettable one,” said Marco Maccioni, restaurateur and middle son of the famed Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo in New York, Las Vegas and Mexico City.

Different tables are for different types of dining experiences, according to restaurant designer Clark Wolf. “One important goal of restaurant design is to make every table a desirable table--for someone. Still, he admits, “every seat can’t be the best seat.”

“No one wants to sit by the kitchen or in the middle of the dining room, where everyone walks by you and hits your chair,” Cabrera said. “Corner tables are good--that is where all the fancy people sit.”

Cabrera has a point: Diners tend not to prefer tables in the middle of the dining room. “It is human nature--we like to be up against things: a wall, a window, or in the corner,” said Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. In a study at the Cornell school, Robson found that 80 percent of people, given the choice, opt for a table by the window.

“We like to be able to protect ourselves on at least one side--being in the middle of the dining room is too vulnerable for most people,” Robson said.

People go to restaurants to see and be seen, according to Robson. “No one wants to feel like they are the only one in the restaurant. They want the combination of being able to regulate their privacy and being able to see what is going on,” she said.

Hierarchical dining-room design has long been a staple in restaurants. The back room at the New York’s once-illustrious Russian Tea Room used to be called Siberia--that’s where the tourists were seated. “The front room at the Russian Tea Room was the place to be,” Marco Maccioni said.

Sirio Maccioni, who opened Le Cirque in 1974, is known for the care with which he arranges his tables in order to create an overall affect. “I remember my father saying, ‘a dining room is like a painting,’” Marco said. “You have to decide where you are going to place all the figures--to create the foreground, middle ground and background.”

At Le Cirque in the 1970s and 1980s, regulars like Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra and Jacqueline Onassis were seated at highly visible tables in a dining room constructed carefully by Sirio to create the “circus” mood he intended.

“If two parties that knew each other came in, my father would seat them at opposite ends of the dining room so that they would have to blow kisses across the dining room and get up to say hello,” Marco said.

Although Le Cirque may still be the deliberate mayhem of celebrity regulars and the wealthy New York elite it always was, restaurants like it are becoming the exception, Wolf said.

“People used to go to the same three restaurants every time they went out to eat--not anymore,” Wolf said. Table design and placement reflect this shift, he added. Fewer repeat guests mean fewer requests for specific tables. Newcomers are more willing to try new ways of seating, paving the way for trends like sitting at communal tables and eating at the bar. But there are still strong preferences. Wolf says that Americans prefer “Hollywood” booths--ones that are round--instead of the face-to-face “Pullman” booths like those found in trains and roadside diners.

In restaurants, space is a precious commodity. “One more two-top squeezed in somewhere can be the difference of thousands of dollars,” Robson said. That is, as long as you can seat customers at it. “There are some tables no one ever wants to sit at,” said Vince Ortega, host at Blue Water Grill in Manhattan, “but when it is crowded, people will sit anywhere.” Sirio Maccioni is famous for removing empty tables from the dining room so that the restaurant is always “full.”

Nevertheless, preferences can vary depending on the type of experience one is seeking. “At some restaurants, being seen is part of the experience,” Robson said. “But if you are out with someone else’s husband, you want to be hidden in the corner.”

E-mail: tb2265@columbia.edu