Bayside by day, city skyline by night at Stokehouse Upstairs. Photo: Eddie Jim
Leonardo DiCaprio's people are on the phone to Sydney's Quay. They need a table for the star and his five friends in the restaurant's lower tower, with its uninterrupted views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Tomorrow, Saturday night, at 8. What to do?
For operations manager Kylie Ball there was nothing to do. ''The room was fully booked. It's not our policy to squeeze in another table, because diners come to us for space and privacy, or to move a diner to another area to accommodate a late booking, even if that booking is for a celebrity.
''We said that, regrettably, we couldn't help Mr DiCaprio, but suggested he and his party come at 6 and vacate their table by 8, or arrive at 9.30, have a drink at the bar and move to a table once it became available. We offered an alternative section of the restaurant. This didn't suit, and I understand that.''
Aria sports postcard views. Photo: Benjamin Walton
The Great Gatsby would have to sample Quay's panorama and executive chef Peter Gilmore's cuisine another time.
To secure a prime table at Quay, or any other premium, in-demand eatery, can require planning, communication and flexibility. A good table can make or break a meal, and top restaurateurs take as much care with their seating plan as their menu.
Table allocation is a science, with restaurant managers juggling booking orders, guest numbers, special requests, the peccadilloes of regular diners and minor celebrities, and the right of a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary not to be plonked next to a raucous hens' night shivoo. And an eatery must be able to cope with unforeseen prickly seating juxtapositions, deftly and surreptitiously rearranging the seating plan if enemy politicians or rival business executives find themselves cheek by jowl.
Corner pew at favourite Grossi Florentino. Photo: Eddie Jim
So if being Leonardo DiCaprio won't score you a Saturday night table in Quay's lower tower, what will? The key at Quay, says Ball, is, ''Get in early. Guests book six months in advance for a Friday or Saturday table in the lower tower, or the more private banquette near the front door with its back to the other tables, or a window, and three months if you want to come mid-week.''
Yet even early birds get no guarantees. ''We say we'll do our utmost to grant a seating request - and we do - but won't promise it.''
In the lower tower, the one-metre-square tables are few, to ensure diners have adequate personal space. In total, Quay accommodates 110 people, ''and that's big, considering the size of our kitchen and our style of service.''
As with Quay, the policy at Melbourne's three-hatted Vue de Monde on the 55th level of the Rialto building, where most reservations include a request for a window seat with its gasp-inducing cityscape or by the kitchen where the chefs work their magic, ''it's by and large, first come, first served'', says reservations manager Loren Daniels.
''That is the fairest way. Of course, we honour frequent guests, but treat them the same as first-timers, the very best we can, because a good experience turns a newcomer into a regular.''
The same thing applies at Sydney's A-List haunt Icebergs Dining Room and Bar.
''Your best chance of dining at one of the dozen or so prized window tables, with their sweeping views of Bondi Beach, is to book early and be a valued regular,'' says former staffer Jo-Ann Moody, now Melbourne Food and Wine's events program co-ordinator.
Frank Roberts, group restaurant manager for Merivale, whose Sydney establishments include est, Mr Wong, sushi e and Bistrode CBD, agrees.
''We receive 30,000 to 40,000 calls a month, and our team uses computers to manage reservations. Regular customers get priority, and we make in-depth profiles of them so know where they want to sit, as well as any food preferences, the wine they enjoy, whether they like to kick off with a Crown Lager.''
Just as restaurants can reward friendly guests and regulars, it is also within their power to punish pests. Siberia does exist.
To get there, no need to fly to Russia, just rock up to a busy restaurant without a booking, or late, or with a party of 12 instead of four, or reeling drunk. Siberia is by the toilets, by the front door or the middle of heavy waiter traffic. It doesn't matter how good the food, a diner will leave with a nasty taste in their mouth.
Remarkably, there are still some snobbish restaurants that consign guests to inferior seats, their only sin not being famous.
Feisty The New York Times restaurant reviewer Mimi Sheraton took delicious revenge on places that played the celebrity game. She would book under a bogus name and arrive disguised in a wig, fake glasses, perhaps a floppy-brimmed hat, then shame the eateries who disdained her in her column.
It's best, then, to arrive on time and sober at the former eateries, and not at all at the latter.
While Leo lucked out at Quay, Moody says that at some restaurants cosseting high-flyers is accepted practice and proprietors do move heaven, earth and their table configuration to accommodate a moment's-notice celebrity, believing diners will feel chuffed to find themselves sharing a dining room with Brad Pitt or Kate Middleton and return for more celebrity sightings.
The presence of someone famous may also lead to good publicity via the gossip pages.
''At Icebergs, [proprietor] Maurice Terzini always tried to seat well-known people at prime tables, but not at the expense of regulars and early bookers,'' says Moody.
''He'd give prime seats to single women guests to create interest in the dining room, unlike some restaurateurs, who tuck away solo diners in Siberia.''
Its idyllic location on Cowper Finger Wharf, Woolloomooloo, on Sydney Harbour, presents spicy seating challenges for Otto Ristorante's manager, Graham Ackling, which, he admits, other restaurateurs would kill for.
''Otto's prime tables, the ones people usually request when they book, are outside by the water. On a warm, sunny day, sitting there is sublime. But when it's chilly or rainy, diners would rather be inside.
''Depending on the weather, our premium seats change, and who knows what the day will bring when you book three weeks out? So, an hour before they're due, people who've specified an outdoors table want one behind the glass. We do our best.''
A restaurant's seating policy is dictated by its style. ''At upmarket est there's a lot of space between tables, says Roberts. There's less at Mr Wong, our bustling Cantonese-inspired restaurant, where the activity and noise make a happy communal atmosphere.''
So is its furniture. Tables at a cheap and cheery neighbourhood yum cha, Thai or rib joint will be small so more can be sardined into the space. And eateries that need rapid table turnover to survive will likely have hard seats that convince diners to eat up and move on.
A fine-dining restaurant can afford to be more sparsely populated. Upmarket establishments, whose prices allow diners to linger, ''offer expansive tables and throne-like chairs that you never want to climb out of'', says restaurant management expert Toni Clarke, of RT Hospitality Solutions.
At Vue de Monde, the leather chairs with their backs covered in kangaroo hide are custom built for extreme comfort. The tables, like Quay's, are spaced well apart, for privacy and to give the waiter room to stand by the table and detail the degustation menu and the sommelier a stage to explain why a wine is the perfect accompaniment to your morsel of duck yolk, pork, green beans and mint.
A wise restaurateur, too, will position tables for guest comfort. ''A boisterous table of 14 revellers might be having the time of their lives, not so the poor folk at the neighbouring table for two who can't hear themselves think, let alone hold a conversation,'' says Ackling.
''So we place the smaller and larger tables in different sections, and the smaller tables themselves, in turn, are far enough apart so talk at one isn't overheard at the next.''
Part of the challenge for a restaurant is granting diners' special seating requests.
Crown in Melbourne's many restaurants, which include Rockpool, Bistro Guillaume, Silks, Koko, The Atlantic, Breezes, Nobu, Rosetta and Spice Temple, are known as good places to propose marriage.
''We're happy to play matchmaker,'' says general manager, public relations, Ann Peacock. ''For one gentleman and his partner at The Atlantic, we organised a window table looking out onto the Yarra and the cityscape, and for flowers, champagne and dessert to arrive and a trio to play their favourite song on the river walk at the precise moment he proposed. We're good at theatre.''
Otto prides itself on its see-and-be-seen waterside tables, yet has rooms for celebrity guests who want privacy.
One of the blessings of Vue de Monde's location is the Melbourne skyline views enjoyed by patrons seated at the 12 window or near-window tables for two or four guests in the main dining section. Yet it's all subjective. What constitutes the best seat in the house for one party might not satisfy another.
Daniels insists that ''true foodies prefer the four 'chef's tables', seating up to six guests, close to our kitchen pass, where [chef-owner] Shannon Bennett and [head chef] Cory Campbell stand when they're running service.''
How to get the best table
1. Check out the place when it's in full swing to choose where you'd like to sit.
2. Book as early as possible.
3. Establish a friendly rapport with the person taking your reservation.
4. Mention if you're celebrating a special occasion or need wheelchair access. If it's a romantic or business dinner ask not to be seated beside a table for 16.
5. Ask for and note the number of a table you like so you can request it again.
Tables with a view in high demand
''No one tends to request tables at the back of the restaurant,'' jokes marketing manager Jo Bennet of the harbourside fine diner. ''There are five tables in a semi-circle along the front windows with the full view that are indemand and allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.''
1 Macquarie Street, Sydney, 02 9252 2555
Fans of David Chang's daring dishes usually request a seat at the main counter overlooking the kitchen. ''Some people still have a perception that sitting at the counter isn't as prestigious, but this is where all the action is,'' says sommelier Richard Hargreave. Landing any seat in the restaurant is a challenge, with bookings only accepted online 20 days in advance.
The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, 02 9777 9000
Bustling Greek favourite the Apollo only takes group bookings, but that doesn't stop diners coming early, lining up and putting their names down for the six seats at the marble bar overlooking the rest of the restaurant. ''It has a great view of the whole dining room and onto Macleay Street and these seats always get snapped up first,'' says manager Chris McNally.
44 Macleay Street, Potts Point, 02 8354 0888
Window tables are popular in any restaurant, and manager Joe Durrant says it's no different at Grossi. ''The table of four along the window looking over Bourke Street is the most requested,'' he says. ''But people also have sentimental favourites. They might want 'their table' or perhaps a spot at the back of the dining room overlooking the whole restaurant.''
80 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 1811
"The most wanted table is in our bay windows,'' says Stokehouse manager Joel Penno. ''From here you can view the expanse of St Kilda beach and beyond to the bay. These tables are relaxed during the day as the sun shines through, and romantic of an evening watching the lights of Williamstown flicker.''
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, 03 9525 5555