On a busy evening before the holidays, I entered Houston's without a reservation. There was an uneasy feeling in my stomach as I approached the exquisite creature standing behind the podium. She was looking down; her hair was like a Pantene commercial, her skin like porcelain, and I could have cut myself on her cheekbones.
"How long is the wait for a table for two?" I managed to say, feeling like a pimply-faced geek before this tower of beauty. She looked up at me through thick lashes. Her glistening, bee-stung lips parted. Her voice was husky. "Do you have a reservation?" I didn't. She consulted her list. A leg so perfect it was a study in what a leg should be appeared from behind her station. My eyes traveled from the throw-me-down shoe, up the calf, past the delicious knee to the slit of the skirt. She had me now. With a vaguely wanton look in her smoldering eyes she breathed, "It will be about two hours."
I would probably have waited four hours standing on hot coals if she asked me to. I gulped and nodded my consent. She placed a pager into my sweating palm, and suddenly the erotic interlude was over. The shapely leg had disappeared. She was all business.
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Most of us have experienced the Power of the Hostess. We have been advised of our rights, when in fact, we have none. You may wander no more than 20 feet from where you are standing. The pager will sound when your table is ready. You have 60 seconds to respond. Should you miss your page, your name will be passed over, no questions asked and no chance for reprieve. Should you agree to the above terms and conditions, you are encouraged to wait at the bar, or stand nearby, ever-alert to when your turn comes.
As you walk away, the hostess will jot a note by your name. It may be some means to identify you, like "pencil neck" or "love handles." If she has you pegged as a sucker, she may make a note to let wealthier or more photogenic patrons in before you. If she senses you are cheap or have no spine, she'll be sure to put you at a table in the back near the kitchen. If an A-list patron like a sports celebrity or rock star comes in, you will be knocked down a few rungs and will have to wait 'til she can work you in.
Restaurateurs know that on a busy evening, the majority of patrons will be couples, and the man will most likely be in charge of hunting and gathering a table. What owners need is an object of fantasy to keep things under control. They procure the services of a woman who can walk that fine line between insatiable plaything and icy-cold bitch. These women have names like Amber or Charlize. They rule their realm with conscienceless efficiency. They reel you in with fantasy, and once they've got you, it's business as usual.
Hostesses are trained at a secret camp somewhere in Texas. Boot camp for hostesses. No one knows where it is, but if you could find it, you would see platoons of recruits marching in formation chanting "We must! We must! We must increase our busts!" They spend their days doing calf exercises, running obstacle courses while wearing pumps, and learning to do their makeup and hair. The class agenda features courses like Control 101 and Problem Patron Management. Hostesses watch films like Body Heat and The Last Seduction.
The weak, sweet girls are winnowed out and sent to places like Applebee's or second-rate chophouses. Some become flight attendants. Only the fittest will survive and be stationed at the top restaurants around the country. The very best are shipped off to places where reservations are not accepted. Only a woman with the emotions of a robot can last. Visit P.F. Chang's or Roy's on a Friday or Saturday evening and observe.
Occasionally, there will be male recruits -- guys with dreams of power -- but they are looked upon with disdain by the hostess establishment. If they are truly exceptional, places will be found for them, but they will never reach the dizzying heights of power their female counterparts will enjoy.
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Other women never have warm, fuzzy feelings for hostesses. They hold them in the same regard as supermodels. I am told by a friend that the hostesses at RA are particularly cutthroat. When a couple of women enter a restaurant, they will get the eyebrow-raised once-over as the hostess clocks what they are wearing. If it's off the sale rack or smacks of department-store sensibility, they will be dismissed with contempt, eventually scoring a wobbly table near the rest rooms with sugar packets stacked under one leg.
A woman may be a physicist or rocket scientist, but she will never be able to compete with these girls who hold the reins in the restaurant world. Every man thinks, "I'm the one she really smiles at. She thinks I'm cool. She licked her lips and laughed at my joke. She digs me."
Dream on. She just wrote "bald spot" next to your name.
John Roark is a freelance writer who has sat near the kitchens and rest rooms of some of the Valley's finest restaurants. He has been known to wait for up to three hours for a table behind a pole.