Many years and many restaurants later, I encountered Charles Matson and began to be curious to see a dinner through his eyes. So I asked him to take me through a couple of dinners out, providing commentary as we went. He chose the restaurants, based partly on their reputation for food and partly on their reputation for service. Our first meeting was at Vivace at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad.
I called and asked for an eight o’clock reservation for two on Saturday, November 11, of 2000. The receptionist replied, “We have an opening at 8:45.”
“Could I have that, then?”
“Okay, no problem.”
Around eight o’clock, I arrived at Aviara, gave my keys to the valet-parking attendant, and made my way to the lounge. I sat beholding the generous appointments of the bar, nursing an $11 bourbon (you’re paying for a lot more than the drink here), waiting for my guest. Charles arrived, sat down, and ordered a Pellegrino from the manager — his gray suit set him apart from the waiters, as did the manner in which he drifted from table to table, monitoring everyone’s happiness — who appeared a moment later. Soon after that, a waiter approached our table, but the glass he set before Charles was full of Four Seasons Pale Ale.
“There may have been some miscommunication,” began Charles, unperturbed. “What I wanted was Pellegrino sparkling water.”
“Pellegrino,” repeated the waiter, puzzled. “Well, this wouldn’t be that.”
“With my accent and the music going on, a lot of different things could have occurred,” offered Charles, oozing kindness. Though it was true that we were seated next to the guitar player, Charles’s voice carries very little accent — if anything, he speaks with a slight twang that makes his speech clearer than most.
“Would you care for the beer anyway?” asked the waiter, eager to make amends. Charles accepted; the waiter went back for his Pellegrino and returned forthwith. Charles was pleased. “The server was outgoing; he took care of the situation and left the beer. A lot of places, they make you feel guilty, as if you must have mumbled. Here, it was, ‘We made a mistake — the beer is on the house.’ ”
Earlier, Charles compared the interaction he has with a restaurant to a dance. He also mentioned that his evaluation of his partner may begin even before he has requested that she join him on the floor — that is, before he has made his reservation. Often, he has already been there and “gotten the vibe,” along with some appetizers. Proceeding, then, to the request, which gives him a sense of what sort of partner he’s dealing with. “I would have liked to have been there when you called,” he told me. “I wish I could have listened to what they said, counted how many times they used your name. Three times is the [ideal]. ‘Thank you, Mr. Lickona, that will be two people at 8:45 this Saturday, November 11. We look forward to seeing you, Mr. Lickona.’ That’s twice; that’s the minimum.” As it happened, I didn’t get one.
Charles commented on my inability to get eight o’clock, a failure that didn’t surprise him. “Our table was probably a 6:30 reservation that they were counting on being gone by 8:30. It may have been a larger party — perhaps one requiring a six-top table, so named because it seats six diners — so they gave it an extra 15 minutes. If you said, ‘Eight,’ and they suggested 8:45, it was probably a larger-top table.”
Eight o’clock, it turns out, is something of a holy grail to Charles, an all but impossible reservation time, falling as it does slightly beyond the traditional end of the first turn and slightly before the traditional beginning of the second turn. (A “turn” is Charles’s term for the time taken at the table by a given party before the table “turns over” to another party. If you are first turn, you are the first party seated at that table on a given night.) “I once called a restaurant; I think I wanted 8:00. They said, ‘We have 7:30 or 8:30.’
“ ‘If I’m at 8:30, am I at the beginning of the second turn?’
“ ‘Yes, you heard me.’
“ ‘Well, there is a table seated before you, but they’ll be gone by 8:30.’
“ ‘What about 7:30?’
“ ‘No, you’d be the first one.’
“ ‘Oh, that’s what I want.’
“I want to be the first one seated at the table. That way, I don’t have to wait for anyone. Otherwise, you’re gambling.” He outlined an ugly and plausible scenario: “Someone calls [shortly before a very busy night like Valentine’s Day] and says, ‘Do you have anything around 7:00 or 8:00?’
“ ‘No, but we have 5:30 or 9:30.’
“ ‘Oh, I’ll take 5:30.’
“Now, what happens is, they’re at work at five o’clock. There’s no way they’re going to be able to get home and change and get to the restaurant by 5:30, but they don’t want to deal with not having a Valentine’s Day reservation. Plus, when you take something you don’t really want, you don’t feel obligated to get there when you agreed to. So they call at 20 to 6:00 and say, ‘We’re running a little late; we’ll be there in a few minutes,’ which basically means 20 minutes. Since they’ve called, the restaurant can’t really give their table away.” A half hour after their reservation, they sit down to dine. “The people who get hurt are the people scheduled after them, who called a month ahead of time and said, ‘I want a 7:30 reservation.’ ” Their table, which would have been available had the 5:30 couple been on time, is now occupied. Given a standard two-hour dining time, they are in for an extended wait at the bar. “They feel that the restaurant is very irresponsible, because now they’re waiting a half hour for a reservation they made a month ago.”