CHATS / Meet the Gatekeeper of New York City’s Tough Tables

December 19, 2022

Meet Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, a career maître d’hôtel in NYC’s power dining scene who is now spilling the tea from more than 3 decades as the gatekeeper of New York City’s hottest and most in-demand restaurants. From the rollicking, greed-is-good 1980s to today’s post-COVID world, Michael’s new tell-all book, Your Table Is Ready (St. Martins Press), is an authentic journey behind-the-scenes of the restaurant industry, complete with a generous serving of celebrity names and all the antics that ensue when you’re in charge of deciding who the lucky few will be to fill those coveted seats.

We were lucky enough to sit down with him recently, and here’s what he shared with us about his perspective on how to score reservations and so much more. Contact your concierge for reservations at Michael’s newly opened restaurant, Cecchi’s. Inspired by classic French bistros and the warmth of neighborhood joints, he has created a modern Bar and Grill that radiates with vibrancy, warmth, and sheer New York charm.

What takeaway do you hope your readers will emerge with after they read Your Table Is Ready?

I’d like my readers to have gotten a glimpse into the soul of a restaurant. To see the unique alchemy of the human experience, at times in all its excesses, distilled into its most basic and primal forms. The incredibly hard work, unbounded humanity, passion, teamwork and commitment — counterbalanced with greed, ego, and meanness — all that goes into bringing a plate of food to a table.

Compared to the old days of handwritten reservation books, did technology make the reservation “game” better or worse?

When I first maître d’ed at the River Café, the “book” was actually that. A tome filled with lined pages demarcating the time, table number, name, phone number, and number of guests. Some books had a tiny space to add notes. Depending on who entered the reservation, the information could at times be illegible, names misspelled, phone numbers transcribed incorrectly, etc.  It of course had to be written in pencil because if someone canceled, you just erased the name and added another. You constantly had to be on top of the reservationists to write clearly and get the correct spelling of the names and the right phone number. Mistakes were plentiful. Though as I recount in my book, when things got tight at the door, and I over-seated or took too many people, I could always blame it on the reservation book being incorrect to escape the wrath of the chef!

Technology has been an absolute game changer. It’s given guests so much more freedom to book tables, check availability, and instantly receive confirmations, reminders, etc. They no longer have to wait on hold, especially at very busy restaurants to have to speak to a reservationist to either book a table or be told nothing is available. There were times you’d have to stay on the phone as the reservationist went through the pages to find the next availability. As for restaurants, it’s made the whole process so much simpler. One of the best things for me was it allowed me to take detailed notes on guests’ preferences, and the names of their spouses, children, boyfriends, and girlfriends. You can see how many times they’ve come in, what they like and don’t like, the tables they prefer, etc. You have a wealth of information right there. Prior to this, I’d keep a little black book to jot down all this info and that was usually a mess! When I reopened The Standard Grill with Rocco di Spirito, we both wanted to use the old-school reservation book but quickly realized those days will never come back. 

Even though we know palming $100 does not guarantee quid-pro-quo, what’s your advice to the tipper who handed over $100 and got nothing in return?

I’ve rarely heard of this happening. If someone handed me a hundred and I knew there was nothing I could do, I’d either refuse it or hand it back. If someone did hand me a hundred and I thought I could do something but wasn’t able to (I don’t remember this ever happening), I’d return the money, apologize profusely, offer to make them a reservation on another date, and would certainly offer them a drink at the bar. There have been instances where guests came up to me and palmed me immediately. Knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do, I’d hand the money back immediately. Many times they would thank me anyway and insist I keep it. These guests always got what they wanted the next time they came back. If I gave a maître d’ a hundred and he did nothing for me, I’d go up to him, and very kindly let him know what an asshole he is, tell him to shove the hundred up his ass, and leave.

What’s your advice on how to approach a busy maître d’hôtel to ask if you can wait for a table?

This depends on the restaurant. At Le Coucou, walk-ins were almost never seated. We just didn’t have the tables. They could be the nicest people in the world, but if I didn’t have the table, there would be nothing I could do. Sometimes someone did get lucky. At Raoul’s, we did our best to seat walk-ins, but we’d try to give as accurate a wait time as possible, which sometimes ran well above an hour. One evening, I took a phone call and there was a gent on the other line asking for a table in about an hour. I told him I was very sorry, but we were fully booked. He insisted, kindly and with humor, telling me it was for a famous rapper that was in town for only one night and was dying to eat there. I again declined. He then tried the “rapper has an academy award” and asked if that would that help. He did this in such a friendly, kind, and jovial manner, that I had to laugh and actually apologized for not having a table. About an hour later, the same guy walls in asking for a table. I recognized the voice immediately. Persistence! He was, again, incredibly kind and very funny. As I was talking to him, we get a last-minute cancellation and I was able to seat them. The rapper turned out to be Common, who did have an academy award, and he and the whole group were absolutely incredible and thankful. They became regulars and of course, had no problem getting future reservations. If the gent had been rude, demanding or obnoxious, there is absolutely no way they’d ever get a table. Always be nice! I always give preferential treatment to those who are nice and expected nothing in return.

If you go to a busy restaurant, told there were no tables but there is a waitlist, always get an estimate on how long the wait may be. Remember this is just an estimate. It could be quicker than estimated or much longer. When the estimated time approaches, ABSOLUTELY CHECK IN. Mistakes happen in busy restaurants all the time. Just be polite and respect what the people at the door are going through. The pressure for them is enormous. Sitting quietly will get you nowhere except more and more aggravated as time passes. If you really want to eat there, attempt a gratuity. True professionals won’t accept it if they know it will be impossible to get you a table. If they accept, you have a 99% chance of success.

What is your favorite go-to where all the restaurant industry people go when they want great food or drinks?

For drinks after work, every restaurant has its own favorite bar to meet in afterward. Usually close to the restaurant. At Raoul’s, it was Milady’s (which has just reopened), at Le Coucou, the gang would head over to either the wine bar Compagnie or Whiskey Tavern.

In the theatre district, Rudy’s was the place to go. For food, downtown everyone usually goes to Blue Ribbon, since they serve until 4 AM and are always welcoming, no matter what time you show up.

What is your favorite place to “see and be seen” where scoring a reservation can be tough?

This is always changing. Raoul’s is always up there. Le Coucou was but no longer. Pastis still is. For the wealthy Europeans, it’s always Cipriani on West Broadway.

What is your favorite hole-in-the-wall?


What is your favorite undiscovered gem?

I’d never tell.

Where is your favorite dining city outside of New York?

Paris and Rome

Contact your Concierge to snag your copy of his fast-selling book!