Hostess with the almostest

A veteran food journalist works a front-of-the-house job-and tries not to burn the place down.

Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

It’s 4:45pm and I’m still punching holes in Dovetail’s dinner menus and tying them to leather boards. Our first reservation is at 5:30, and I’m averaging half a menu per minute.

White paper circles litter the carpet around me. Jen, the beverage director, asks, “When are candles going to be done?” I still haven’t Windexed the glass front door, replenished the bowl of matches on the hostess podium or restocked the toilet paper in the bathrooms because I’d run out to fetch fresh hypericum berries for the vases.

Then someone yells, “Phones! Phones!” I can’t hear the ringing because a backwaiter is vacuuming up the paper circles under my feet. I feel guilty anyway, because I know that calls should be answered by the second ring. I’ve been working at this new Upper West Side restaurant since it opened, and I’m still not getting it.

I’m a freelance writer moonlighting as a hostess. In my other life, I’m a contributing editor at Food & Wine magazine, where I was previously a senior editor for nine years. I usually write about top French chefs like Joël Robuchon and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Now I take orders from an American one—John Fraser, Dovetail’s 32-year-old chef and owner.

I talked him into taking me on. I was always writing about elite restaurants, I explained, yet I didn’t know how they worked. I wanted to swap viewpoints, add depth to my writing. I had already nixed the idea of peeling king trumpet mushrooms in the corner of a basement kitchen. I’d been to cooking school. I wanted to work the front of the house.

Fraser ticked off the possibilities—runner, captain, polisher—and guided me to a host position. I might not feel comfortable as a captain if I’ve never waited tables, he suggested. But I could still see plenty from the front door.

A hostess? Internally, I sniffed. I felt I was qualified to do more than hang coats.

“I wonder how long you’ll last,” Fraser said. What did that mean? That restaurant work is tough, or that I’d get bored and quit? He handed me off to Chantel, his 23-year-old maître d’, already a veteran of I Trulli and Union Square Cafe.

Chantel explained the job: Hours are 3 to 11pm or midnight. Front-door tips ($2 per coat on average) are split evenly among the hosts. The hourly wage is $11, and dress is chic professional—dark suit, hair up, no perfume, one earring in each ear, max.

My first training session comes four days after the restaurant has opened. I receive a lesson on OpenTable, the reservations software. Chantel clicks through screens—guests, notes, floor, wait list, calendar. She estimates it will take me three days to pick it up. I don’t even own a BlackBerry: My guess is more like three months.

She also says that I’ll need to memorize the table numbers. “These are tables 10, 11, 12 and 13,” she says. “And these are 40, 41, 42 and 43.” Tables 13 and 40 are right next to each other. Not intuitive.

Later on, I help my colleague Shaquanna in coat check. The coats all have numbered tickets, and it doesn’t occur to me to hang them in numerical order. Shaquanna just stares at me—she probably doesn’t blink for a full minute.

About a month passes, and the job is still challenging: I push the flower vases too close to the candles and the room fills with an acrid, smoky smell. Another time, John catches me leaning against the hostess station. (Hosts are supposed to stand throughout the evening.) “Legs hurt, Jane Sigal?” On a different day, I’m taking a reservation, tap the screen to enter the data and it disappears. I can’t remember the party’s name or phone number. In addition to strong backs and software skills, I’m learning that hostesses need phenomenal memories.

There are also successes: Soon, I can carry two coats and one large Zabar’s bag on each arm. I take three calls at a time and don’t drop any. I’m also beginning to feel part of the team. As the weeks go by, we’re all excited and tense, as what seems like the entire New York food press has walked through the door. Like every employee, I play a role in spotting VIPs. (Some of them recognize me, too). But am I too eager? Suddenly, I feel the tug of my former life.

On February 11, New York magazine awards Dovetail three stars out of five. Diners can’t get tables between 6 and 10pm anymore, and Chantel reports she made $150 in tips on the Saturday night following its publication. Confirmed: A good review can make a restaurant.

Then on February 20, Dovetail receives three stars out of four from The New York Times. I didn’t work that night, but I join the staff for an after-hours party. We’re thrilled and stunned as we clink glasses of cava and beer bottles at Blue Ribbon. Almost immediately, fear of not getting enough stars turns into nervousness about having too many. Will Dovetail be able to meet people’s expectations? I’m worrying, too.

Who is this person I’m becoming?, I wondered. I was starting to feel grateful for $2 tips. I was forgetting that I was a writer. After two months, it was time for me to leave. Although I’m not as seasoned as, say, Chantel, I can now write about hosting with authority. And let me tell you: There’s more to it than checking coats.