Lifestyle

Secrets of the elite dining room: Get the best table and the secret menu

First: Ask for a raise

Location, food and props courtesy of The Albany Club of Toronto; Food stylist Heather Shaw/Judy Inc; Wardrobe stylist Chantal Hubens/Judy Inc; Hair and makeup by Joelle Litt/Judy Inc; Watch courtesy of Holt Renfrew; Wardrobe courtesy of Harry Rosen; Sutherland Models

Location, food and props courtesy of The Albany Club of Toronto; Food stylist Heather Shaw/Judy Inc; Wardrobe stylist Chantal Hubens/Judy Inc;
Hair and makeup by Joelle Litt/Judy Inc; Watch courtesy of Holt Renfrew; Wardrobe courtesy of Harry Rosen; Sutherland Models

Visit a restaurant once, and you’re a random customer. A few more trips might earn you a slot as a regular. But if you think buying that $100 bottle of Pinot makes you a big deal to a restaurateur, think again. In the taxonomy of the dining world, you’re not even close to the top of the heap. That spot’s reserved for what the industry refers to as whales: diners who eat out so often, so passionately and with such stunning disregard for the cost, they’re greeted at the door not just by name, but with a kiss. Tobey Nemeth, co-owner of Toronto’s Edulis, says most good restaurants have a roster of super-elite diners who show a little extra love for a chef and get something back in return. At Edulis, there are about 12 customers who come weekly for chef Michael Caballo’s European-influenced country cuisine. Nemeth sometimes personally calls or e-mails these loyalists. “We’ll let them know we have something special coming in,” she says. “It might be squab or some wild mushrooms that we know they’ll appreciate. They definitely get a little extra attention.”

Some whales, like Josh Josephson—owner of Toronto’s Josephson Opticians and the Cookbook Store—eat at restaurants five or six nights a week because they can’t imagine doing otherwise. (Josephson won’t estimate how much he spends on dining each year, because it “might frighten him.”) Others, like Dave, a Bay Street executive who asked to remain anonymous, eat at the world’s best restaurants with ultra-deep-pocketed clients. But don’t hate the extreme diners who have agreed to share their secrets here. If you want to eat well, there’s a lot you can learn from a whale. (Tip No. 1: Earn a pot load of money.)

A little research goes a long way

“If I’m going to Paris, I’m not looking things up on Yelp,” says Dave. “I’ll phone a partner who likes food, and he’ll tell me where to go. And he’ll say, ‘Tell them I sent you.’ There’s a sense of club membership, demonstrating that you know the right place to be. There’s an element of status to that.”

Knowing the right spot won’t necessarily get you in, though: one of Dave’s favourite places in London these days is 5 Hertford Street, a private club in Mayfair that has hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Moss and George Clooney (and turned away members of One Direction). If a well-connected business associate can’t get you in, ask for help from your hotel concierge or from your private jet service. “There’s a whole industry that’ll do that for you,” says Dave. “If my staff calls to say, ‘I’ve got so-and-so from Goldman Sachs coming in, can we get a table for 10?’ they’ll make room.”

You can never go back too often

One-time visitors come and go, but high-frequency regulars—especially well-off, well-connected ones—help restaurants build their business. When you’re a whale like Josephson, servers will offer menu suggestions based on what they know you like. On one recent night out at Edulis, one of his favourite restaurants, Nemeth insisted Josephson try the peas—picked that afternoon in the Kawarthas. “It’s the one thing you absolutely have to try,” she told him. Being a regular can come with unexpected perks too, says West Coast whale James Tansey, CEO of Vancouver-based Offsetters. Tansey visits Hawksworth, one of the city’s best restaurants, about six times a month and finds that dishes sometimes arrive at his table unannounced. “David will often bring by something nice,” says Tansey, referring to chef David Hawksworth. (When you’re a whale, first names are all you need.)

Sometimes the best food isn’t on the menu

A diner that’s this confident and connected can afford to ignore the menu completely. “I’ve called ahead and said, ‘I really feel like eating halibut today. Any chance you have that?’” Dave says.

At Cioppino’s in Vancouver, Tansey told chef Pino Posteraro to cook whatever he liked after hearing that he’d just brought in an entire wild boar from Alberta. The boar-based tasting menu was one of the most memorable meals Tansey has eaten.

Josephson goes a step further. He once challenged one of Toronto’s best chefs to prepare a meal based on game. Josephson provided two types of deer (fallow and red), two kinds of duck and a woodcock. The chef turned them into a “fabulously creative” dinner; the standout dish involved jellyfish. (Josephson is loath to name the chef, since serving wild game in Ontario restaurants is illegal.)

Drink more wine

Some of the most lavish dinners in the food world revolve around wine. Dave’s standout example was a multi-course meal at Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, B.C., designed around wines that each scored a perfect 100 from critic Robert Parker. The price: somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 a head. Karen Graham, a Vancouver wine writer who swears she isn’t a whale but probably knows some, recalls an evening in the Okanagan hosted by CedarCreek Estate Winery. (Graham recommends signing up for e-mails at wineries—they’ll let you know when they’ve got a luxe event planned.) The wine crew had teamed with star chef Rob Feenie, who cooked a five-course dinner that she still considers one of the finest she’s ever eaten. But the best part was Feenie and his staff winding down afterward at her apartment, saying they were hungry. What do you serve a chef who would later go on to earn the prestigious Relais Gourmand designation? Graham ordered a pizza.