VIP = Very Infuriating Patron

As a food journalist in a smallish city, I’m frequently recognized around town by a chef, a manager, or (especially) a bartender. Not primarily a restaurant critic, I don’t take pains to preserve my anonymity, though I do try to maintain a low profile—a better strategy for taking in the genuine feel of a place.

Sure, there’s a handful of local eateries where I’m all but guaranteed a free scooby from the kitchen, or a heavy pour of the pinot gris. But beyond a few egregious cases, it’s like being a regular old regular: the same “special” status I’d enjoy as a heavy-tipping amateur gourmand in any other profession.

Lately, though, the VIP game seems to have taken a particularly ugly turn. (Naturally, it’s not usually when I’m the one on the receiving end of such strokes….). Several weeks ago, I was dining at the bar in a posh boîte in the South End. Er, well, trying to dine at the bar, I should say. Not a staffer recognized me as a journalist, so I got a taste of VIP treatment from an onlooker’s perspective.

Talk about obnoxious!

So I’m desperately sending up smoke flares to get the bartender’s attention; meanwhile, the manager-on-duty is four feet away from me, fawning over a pair of patrons who are clearly in the restaurant industry. “Ooh, please thank Chef X for that yummy amuse!” one of them coos, wiping away the foie grease with dainty dabs of the napkin, as the M.O.D. practically nuzzles his neck. “Oh, why don’t I just top you off with the rest of this Sancerre!” she beams.

Oof! My kingdom for a menu! Or a glass of water, even? One last nuzzle, and she accidentally spins around and happens to spy my frustrated look. Instead of bounding over full of apologies (and, you know, a menu…), she first scans the joint for the bartender, who is still dealing with some other table.

Emitting an audible sigh, she mutters a grumpy “Be right back” to her VIPs, lumbers over to my perch, and dumps a menu unceremoniously onto my paper placement. “He’ll be right with you,” she explains, before rejoining her buddies a few seats away at the bar.

If this experience were isolated, I’d chalk it up to a bad day, or a bad place, even. On the contrary, however, either I’m more observant lately, or there’s a distinct general trend of “cliquing up” by the city’s best eateries.

I’m also not begrudging any front-of-the-house for taking care of its regulars. They’re a restaurant’s bread and butter. They’re the Old Reliables who prop up an otherwise-slow Monday dinner service, who bring their own friends in to spend plenty of cash, who contribute as much to staff morale (a onetime server, I know it’s much more fun to wait on familiar, friendly faces than demanding, bad-tipping one-timers…) as to their take-home pay.

But the rest of us aren’t clueless. We all know when the joker in the adjacent seat is getting the $12 wine we just bought for free. Not a bad thing, in itself. (In fact, I cordially invite all my favorite bartenders to save their “last few sips in the bottle” for the next time I come in.)

But there’s a way to carry out that VIP/staff ritual without making it too clique-ish, or making other customers feel like their patronage is second-class. It’s important stuff. Because you never know when you might be snubbing a budding regular for your restaurant. Or a magazine food editor who managed to slip below the radar.

  • Carmen

    Agreed. A few months ago took a visiting aunt to a restaurant where the tables are set fairly close to each other. As we dined, the owner stood with her butt in my face for at least 15 minutes — so that she could chat with and fawn over the couple at the adjacent table. She even swayed back and forth, as if mooning me on purpose. I couldn’t enjoy my tapas because I was worried she might fart.

    Separately, in the past week, four unrelated people have told me I should try the same new restaurant. They love the food (which is delicious) but they’re blown away by how NICE the staff is — to EVERYONE. That’s great, but it’s sad that a friendly restaurant staff isn’t just par for the course in this town.