Fraud With Distractions

It's the latest dining game in New York: Show up at a packed restaurant without a reservation, and lie through your teeth to get in. Hot spots like Nobu and Pastis are increasingly frequent victims of surprise parties insisting -- often loudly -- that they called to stake out a table as long as a month ago. Sometimes the scene gets ugly, and it hardly ever turns out well. But the more important the restaurant a guest can defraud in this fashion, the more important the customer. Or so these customers believe.

Here in Arizona, we're more polite than that. Historically, we haven't needed to resort to deception to dine, primarily because there are few restaurants we can't get into on a regular basis. Even topnotch places like Mary Elaine's normally are available, at most with the need to call a few days in advance.

But lately, our Valley dining scene has changed. Over the past few months, crowds have been converging on a select group of eateries, forcing two-hour-plus waits for places so popular they refuse to even take reservations. Has Nobu opened in north Scottsdale? No. Embarrassingly enough, local lemmings are lining up for the Cheesecake Factory (Scottsdale), Bahama Breeze (Chandler) and Pappadeux (west Phoenix). Chain restaurants, offering the same food, the same experience, the same old stuff that can be found in every shopping mall across America.

And actually, getting into these places is easy. I recently ventured out to these three eateries to test just how serious they are about their reservations policies. Piece o' cake. I found that these restaurants' young, wide-eyed staffers were easily manipulated for priority seating. Tricks include figuring out -- then dropping -- a manager's name. If you're attempting to get in at lunch, be sure to drop the name of the night person and vice versa for dinner, so staffers can't really check up on you. Or leap up to the podium when they call someone else's name -- how many "Suzy Smiths" live in the Valley, after all?

When all else failed, I tried impatience -- telling the hostess that I had been waiting for several hours, and how could she have lost my name?

Still, there are a few places in town that are not so easy to crack. I like to see someone get past the pit bulls manning the waiting lists at legendary hot spots Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix) and Arcadia Farms (Scottsdale).

Pizzeria Bianco does not take reservations, and patrons line up like Russian grocery shoppers beginning half an hour before the place opens. It's like a running of the bulls when the hostess steps up to the first in line, smiling, to point to a table. I tried the attitude approach, marching straight past the hostess and planting my posterior at a single, empty table. Within seconds, I was escorted away, and after some awkward moments, tucked politely at the bar within nose-whacking distance of the server's pass-through.

Arcadia Farms was even tougher. The place does take reservations, and the pixielike hostess was perfect pushover material, I figured -- young, wide-eyed and way too cheerful. Wrong, and how. She didn't buy my "I made a reservation" lie for a minute, smiling and telling me how unfortunate they didn't have a record of it, and I could wait for the next table -- available in an hour or so. She shook her head when I pleaded that I had an important business meeting, and she simply had to accommodate me. She actually bristled when I offered her 10 bucks to squeeze me in. If Arcadia Farms' food wasn't so spectacular, I'd be too ashamed to ever go back.

Some of us hate no-reservations policies. One frequent diner I know loves to stop in at an uppity eatery and put a large party on the waiting list. Then, he heads off to dinner elsewhere. His thinking is that this maneuver will help artificially inflate the wait time a hostess quotes to other diners, and they, in turn, will decide to dine elsewhere. He says if enough people do this, restaurants will drop their no-reservations policy.

I don't know about that -- it seems about as effective as dealing with a problem neighbor by ringing the doorbell and running.

Few of us are good enough actors to pull off manipulation, and restaurant staffers can tell when we're trying to pull fast ones. A better solution, agrees a longtime employee of Roy's of Scottsdale, is to admit our woes. There are bound to be no-shows for held reservations, even on the busiest evenings, and the host or hostess holds the power over which walk-ins will get the surprise seatings. If we're nice, we'll get chosen; if we're pushy and rude, we'll go to bed hungry.

Being considerate of the situation and simply asking for options works, too. On a whim, I stopped in at Don & Charlie's of Scottsdale Saturday night, just in time for the 7 p.m. crush. During the busy season, this joint turns out probably 500 dinners a night, and reservations are an absolute. I was quoted a wait time of an hour and a half, and with current reservations already backed up, there was no guarantee. Folks were jostling and growling as a single hostess did her best imitation of an air-traffic controller.

With a big smile, I commented how she certainly had her hands full, but perhaps there was a little place we could snag at the bar? Anything? If it was convenient? Bingo. Within 15 minutes, we were seated at a cozy table in the far corner of the bar, where we chowed on steaks as the masses starved.

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