Will This $20 Change Your Mind?

Dear Helena,

What do you think about bribing the host in restaurants? Is this still a common practice? How much does one need to bribe to get a good table, or a table at all if you don’t have a reservation? How does one pass cash with finesse? —Smooth Move

Dear Smooth Move,

I couldn’t find anyone to talk to about offering a bribe to get a table. Either no one was admitting to doing it, or bribing has fallen out of style. So the only way to find out more was to try it for myself. I also asked my husband, Jordan, to come along for two reasons: I figured I would treat him to a nice dinner since I’ve been criticized for hiding tofu in his food, and I felt it would be more realistic if a man did the bribing.

I gave Jordan clear instructions, based on a conversation I’d had with a former restaurant hostess who had received bribes:

1. Fold the bills in the palm of your hand. (Twenty bucks seemed too 1980s, so we settled on $30.)
2. Say, “We’ll be waiting in case anything opens up unexpectedly,” since the host or hostess may need a minute to decide if he or she should accept the money, and what to offer in return.
3. Give a slight nod, or meaningful stare.
4. Slide the cash across the podium. Another way would be to tuck the cash into the host’s hand in a casual manner, as if paying for drugs.

(For tips on three different techniques, check out the accompanying video.)

Our first stop was the Slanted Door in San Francisco. It was 8 p.m. on Saturday night, and the place was jam-packed. When the hostess told us there were no tables, Jordan offered the bribe, exactly as we had practiced. She slid it back and told him there were “absolutely no tables.” We slunk out. Jordan felt “incredibly sleazy.” I gave him a pep talk.

Our next stop, another high-end restaurant, was a different story. Over the phone, the hostess said tables would be “a 35- to 40-minute wait.” Low blood sugar was making me moody. But Jordan had gained confidence. He marched in and offered the bribe with flair: two $20s this time, because we were too hungry to chance going elsewhere.

Instantly, the hostess engulfed us in a wave of warmth. “Wow! Thank you,” she breathed. “I’ll let you know as soon as your table is ready.” We sat down on a banquette in the bar and ordered a self-congratulatory cocktail. “So this is how it feels to be rich,” I said. The hostess peeped in at us, her eyes sparkling, as if, for another $20, she would have a threesome.

Then we waited. And waited. Another couple was seated. We waited some more.

Thirty-five minutes later, the hostess handed us off to someone else to show us to our table, without a word to us. I felt betrayed. Jordan claimed that we got a better table than we otherwise would have, but it didn’t seem like anything special to me. Possibly she seated us before a late-arriving reservation.

A former hostess I spoke with, who asked that her name not be used, said that in her experience a bribe rarely got the briber an immediate seat. Rather, it meant the party got bumped up on the waiting list. And the size of the bribe rarely made much difference unless it was extraordinarily large (one guy proffered $400 and was given a table pronto).

More likely, our hostess pocketed the cash without doing any rule-bending at all, which is a risk you take with any bribe. We felt used. I barely had an appetite for my olive oil–poached salmon.

A couple of days later, I called the restaurant in question and asked about its policy on bribes. The hostess I spoke with (not the one who took the $40) gave a horrified chuckle: “We’re a pretty classy institution. We honor reservations that are made in advance.”

I attempted a similar chuckle. “Quite right too,” I said.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.