How To Be a Restaurant VIP and What It Will Get You
Rancho Pinot's Chrysa Robertson says dessert is not always a welcome surprise.
Hannah E. Williams
See also: Kevin Binkley Stiffed at Beard Awards
Shh, don't tell anyone, but some people get the royal treatment in restaurants while others don't. You've probably witnessed some version of Special Handling in action -- servers scurrying to and from a particular table, the chef-owner engaging in an inordinate amount of schmoozing -- and wondered, "Who the heck are THOSE people and why are THEY so important?"
One obvious possibility is that someone at the table is actually famous. But here in Phoenix -- where the Donald Trumps and Diane Sawyers are fewer and farther between -- it's more likely that the pampered people in question are simply regulars: customers who spend money in the restaurant three or four times a month.
Of course, every high-end restaurant worth its fleur de sel issues the same politically correct statement: We treat all our customers like VIPs. But you know and I know that some folks are a little more "VI" than others.
Because it's important not to make the regular Joes feel like regular Joes, many restaurants use a code word for VIP treatment. Charleen Badman of FnB maintains that the parlance in Manhattan, where she worked for nearly eight years, is soigné (pronounced swan-yay).
Here at home, Chef Chris Gross of Christopher's uses the term "Special Care," which somehow conjures wheel chairs and IVs more than best table in the house or complimentary glass of bubbly.
So what constitutes soigné? It could be anything. Just as Kevin Binkley does at Binkley's, many high-end restaurants keep a tally of what their regulars like and dislike. Are they allergic to dairy? Do they hate mushrooms? They'll never be served those things.
What they will receive is something they've previously expressed a love for or interest in: their favorite biscuits, vegetable or dessert. So-and-so loves pork? He may be treated to a sample of a new pork dish going on the menu.
Sometimes, a brand new wine or a dish with a seasonal or obscure ingredient is brought to the VIP table as the chef urges, "Try this. We just got it in," a statement that always expresses exclusivity.
Apparently, being a VIP means never having to remember a thing. "What was that wine we enjoyed so much last time?" a regular customer may ask. Because the all-important info is either written down or locked within somebody's steel trap of a brain, the correct wine is brought to the table without hesitation. Or maybe the customer's favorite cocktail is waiting at the table when he or she arrives.
Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot maintains that when it comes to soigné, delivering an unasked-for dessert is never the smartest route to take. Customers may be full (if they'd wanted dessert, they'd have ordered it), so the gesture becomes meaningless or -- worse -- burdensome. It's important, she says, to give customers something they don't expect.
She encourages her servers to make a policy of "topping off" the wine glass for special customers who may not want to buy another full glass but long for an extra sip or two. "People love that," she says.
Robertson also comps an entire meal every three months or so for customers who come in once a week, explaining that it's "the ultimate good will."
And, of course, many restaurants make a point to save a regular's favorite table when he or she calls to make a reservation.
If this all sounds pretty swell, you know what you need to do: Find a restaurant you love and go there often. Treat the people who work there well and tip them handsomely. You'll be a VIP before you know it.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.