When you go to a restaurant, you rarely expect the staff to know more about you than the person you are taking out for dinner does. It's perfectly possible, though, that a modern maître d' will have boned up on your biography using Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or LinkedIn, well before you walk through the door.
Researching online the names in the reservations book is common practice at most top restaurants, but many diners were apparently unaware of it until last week, when New York magazine featured a behind-the-scenes report about one award-winning Manhattan establishment, Eleven Madison Park.
Every day before service, the maître d', Justin Roller, Googles each guest in search of personal information he can use to enhance his or her evening. If it's someone's birthday, he'll know to greet them with a "Happy Birthday"; if it's a couple's anniversary, he tries to work out which one. If someone has Instagrammed a vineyard, his staff will refamiliarise themselves with the 131-page wine list. "If I find out a guest is from Montana, and I know we have a server from there," he said, "we'll put them together."
At least one commentator likened the practice to stalking, but insiders say anticipation is key to good service – and knowing a little about your guests can make a big improvement. "Google is everyone's best friend," said Tracey Spillane, general manager of Spago, the legendary Beverly Hills celebrity haunt. "They may not have shared it with the restaurant, but if someone says on Twitter, 'Going to Spago tonight, celebrating a birthday', it's an opportunity for us to... create a wonderful guest experience."
Spago is the flagship for chef Wolfgang Puck's worldwide fine-dining group, and its staff regularly share information about jet-setting guests with their sister restaurants in other cities. "We make a lot of calls between our restaurants to ask, 'Do you know this person?'," Ms Spillane said.
Josiah Citrin, the chef/owner of Melisse, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Santa Monica, said his staff take copious notes on all their diners – likes and dislikes, professions or special occasions – and log them in the restaurant's database. "It used to be that the maître d' kept all those notes in his head," Mr Citrin said. "But now, with computerised reservation systems, whenever anyone calls to make a booking, whoever answers the phone has access to who these people are and what they like."
London restaurants are no different, said Jon Spiteri, a veteran of the capital's fine-dining scene, and manager of the Holborn Dining Room, which opened recently at the Rosewood Hotel. "We try to get as much information as possible," he said. "So, when you come again, we know what you like. If you come to a restaurant often and people know those things about you, you feel more at home."
One crucial tool is the OpenTable online booking system, used by some 31,000 restaurants worldwide. It's not just a reservations system; it stores notes on each guest, so a restaurant knows whether they like still or sparkling water, or if they have booked a table at the same time as their boss – so staff can keep the parties apart and avoid any awkward conversation.
Restaurants suggest they are simply using the tools of the internet to accelerate the process by which a customer becomes a familiar regular. "It's not prying," Mr Spiteri said. "It's about tailoring the experience."