Tables of choice Where you sit reflects your standing

April 02, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

To the uninitiated, they're simply numbers: 1, 15 and 45.

To the wealthy and powerful in Baltimore, though, they're the keys to the throne at the Polo Grill. Sit at one of these numbered tables -- as movie director Barry Levinson, TV personality Sally Thorner and BSO president Buddy Zamoiski do -- and it means something. In the grand social scheme, you have arrived.

Location, location, location. The real-estate maxim also applies to a much smaller piece of property: a table at the top restaurants in town.

Placement is power. Prestige. Privilege. Land at a sought-after banquette and you're king of the hill. Wind up at a tiny table for two by the kitchen, and you're a nobody.

Say what you will about the no-frills '90s, people still care about such things, particularly when they're spending $100 plus for a meal.

The Milton Inn gets as many as 50 requests for fireside tables on a Saturday night. At the newly opened Citronelle, 40 percent of the patrons calling for reservations make requests for a specific table. And the Prime Rib finally put up a bronze nameplate for a customer who visited for some 15 years, often five nights a week, always insisting on table No. 1.

Local maitre d's are rumored to make $100 in tips on an average night, just to take guests to the restaurant's promised land.

"Tables are status in this town," says Jimmy Judd, an antiques dealer who eats out frequently. "People want to see and be seen at restaurants like the Prime Rib and the Polo Grill. They want to feel important and they don't want to wait."

He has his rightful place at many of them. At Hampton's, it's the middle table by the window (No. 109). "The Cappuccino Table" )) (so called because a cappuccino maker once sat there) is his whenever he visits the Prime Rib. And when he goes to Dalesio's, he simply walks to the right corner spot (No. 2) if the maitre d' isn't there.

"If I want to enjoy a dinner, I can't be in a front-row seat. I know a lot of people, and I keep having to say hello to everyone. I end up not even knowing what I ate," says Mr. Judd, the president of Amos Judd & Sons on Howard Street.

Tables can also be powerful links to the past and future. Phyllis Brotman inherited table No. 1 at the Prime Rib after the death of her friend, Wilson Lau, who had called that table his own for years. Although others sit there, too, it's become a Brotman family favorite, with her daughter, Barbara Brotman Kaylor, using it also.

"It's a nice table because it's right where you can see people come in, but they don't necessarily see you," says Ms. Brotman, the president of Image Dynamics, an advertising and public relations firm.

What earns a table a four-star rating?

The view, the sightlines and the distance from the kitchen have something to do with it. But in the end, the choice is as individual as the diners themselves.

"One man's Siberia is another man's Florida," says Buzz BeLer, owner of the Prime Rib.

There are patrons who want to be centerpieces in a dining room, others who prefer to be flies on the wall; there are booth-lovers, table-loathers; diners who hate walls, windows and rooms without a view.

Then there's the Goldilocks syndrome: folks who circle a dining room trying different chairs and different tables in search of one that's just right.

"We have people who will sit down at six different tables before deciding on one," says Linwood Dame, proprietor of Linwood's Cafe-Grille in Owings Mills.

Although restaurateurs insist that age, appearance and social prominence have little to do with where diners sit, not everyone believes that's true.

"There's always been a pecking order," says Ms. Brotman. "It comes with the territory of who you are and what you do. . . . There were times early in my career when I got put near the kitchen. The CEOs and heads of corporations had the best tables, and I always wondered how they got them."

Herb Fried, chairman of the executive committee for W. B. Doner & Co., an advertising firm, says the secret is simply being a good customer.

"When my secretary calls, these restaurants know me. They take care of me. If Joe Schmo calls, they'll try to take care of him, but they have a responsibility to their regular customers," he says.

In the end, it all comes down to the maitre d'. As chain restaurants proliferate, though, some industry analysts say a maitre d's days are numbered.

"People say a maitre d' is an anachronism," says Blane Boeri, 39, who has held that post at the Prime Rib for seven years. "It may be due to the style of restaurants these days. They're more informal. Often, they'll have a hostess or a waiter greeting people at the door. I think that's regrettable. . . . When I walk into a restaurant, it's nice to be greeted by someone who knows you on a more personal level."

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