America's Toughest Tables: Dining at the Hottest Restaurants

The Restaurant at Meadowood, in the Napa Valley, just received two coveted stars from the Michelin Guide, and Jean Marie Aldinger couldn't be more pleased.

That's because, as one of the concierges at the posh wine country resort, she fields countless requests for reservations to the renowned French Laundry restaurant located nearby. But these are requests she can rarely fulfill, since the Thomas Keller-owned spot is almost always booked.

The shiny new Michelin stars "should make the bad news easier to take," says Aldinger, as "Plan B" just became much more attractive.

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Though the resort concierges do have direct access via e-mail to the French Laundry--famous for its marathon tasting menu and two-month waiting list--Aldinger says they do not have an "in" for reservations. But they are made aware of cancellations--which is why they take guests' cellphone numbers--just in case.

If they need to secure a guaranteed reservation for a guest planning to arrive two months out, they simply have to get on the phone and hit the redial button, just like every other curious epicurean.

"Sometimes," says Aldinger, "we put it on speaker-phone and just walk away."

And French Laundry is not the only hard-to-crack hot spot.

On Washington's Wish List

As the restaurant critic of The Washington Post, Tom Sietsema makes an average 60 reservations per month. Juggling his various pseudonyms isn't nearly as stressful as trying to squeeze in multiple visits at the hottest spot in town in a timely fashion.

These days, says Sietsema, "the hardest ticket in town, aside from a state dinner at the White House, is minibar."

When making reservations for raved-about minibar, Sietsema says he recruited several friends to hit the redial button for him. As a rule, though, Sietsema prefers to make the reservations himself, since "the reception you get on the phone is all part of the dining experience."

Teensy minibar, which is making waves for its "molecular gastronomy," is especially tough because there are only six seats and each meal consists of about 30 mini-courses that spark oohs, aahs and analysis. (Consider the wand of cotton candy hiding a morsel of foie gras).

Reservations for minibar are taken a month in advance. That is to say, if you want a seat for the 15th of March, you would need to start calling on Feb. 15. The earlier you call, the better your odds.

Big Apple Bites

The Mediterranean/American cuisine at The Little Owl in Manhattan is less experimental than at minibar (think lobster and shrimp ravioli) but scoring a reservation requires no less effort. Chef/owner Joey Campanaro says there are only 10 tables at this cozy Greenwich Village eatery, and they like to keep about 40% open for walk-ins.

"This is a neighborhood restaurant," says Campanaro, "and we want people in the neighborhood to have some hope of getting in."

No reservations are required for the four spots at the bar, which he thinks are the best seats in the house because they afford diners more elbow room. And what's the best time to secure a table without a rezzie?

"5 o'clock is always best," says Campanaro.

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