IT USED TO be that a person with an English accent could procure on-the-spot seating for four, six, eight, or even twelve of his friends at any moderately decent New York restaurant. Walk into a SoHo steak-frites joint, a West Village cafe, an East Side tapas bar, or an Upper East Side bistro, and if even one of your party could stammer, "I say, could we possibly... " convincingly, you were in. But that was weeks ago, before the crop of new spring and summer restaurants unrolled their awnings, before New Yorkers had thrown away their winter boots (no one has enough closet space to save seasonal dress), and before the winter crowd had left Aspen.

But now that the bee's on the blossom and swarms of hungry flaneurs are crowding the streets in search of lime-chipotle adobo rubs, bees are pretty nearly the only species that are having any luck getting a meal. The gossip Cindy Adams joked this week that "Hollywood just opened a brand-new restaurant catering solely to anorexics. It's closed 24 hours a day." In Manhattan, anorexics have a wider selection; they may choose from hundreds of restaurants with a dizzying array of culinary signatures, at which they don't stand a chance of ever being served food, no matter how long they stand with gaunt cheeks pressed against the windows. Even if your intention is merely to contract food poisoning for ten bucks, you wi11 have to fight for the privilege. And at a reasonable or merely marginal neighbourhood restaurant, waits are now Soviet in length. At The Hat - a dingy Mexican hangout in SoHo - the crockery tastes of bleach, the entrees are indistinguishable from each other, and waitresses ignore the customers if they don't speak Spanish. Still, on any Friday night, as late as 11 o'clock, 20 or more people can be seen cooling their huaraches outside the door. They acknowledge that the food will be "super-cruddy," yet they wait, and wait, because the frozen margaritas are good, and because everyplace else has a wait, too. Besides, The Hat's wait time is only fifteen minutes, which means an hour. At Mary Ann's on Second Avenue, and Benny's Burritos on Avenue A, both of which have far better Mexican food, the wait time is forty- five minutes, which means an hour and a half to two hours. Move up a cuisine notch to Moroccan food, at Chez Es Saada, and the wait is an hour and a half, which means "Go away." Move up another notch to Italian, and you will fast in even more romantic surroundings. At Il Bagatto on 2nd Street, you don't wait for a table, you wait to be told if there will be a table to wait for. Miles north on the Upper West Side, on a rainy, blustery Thursday, another famished mob huddled patiently outside the gemutlich restaurant Gennaro. "After balf an hour, the mood turned, and I thought I might get trampled, so I left," a veteran recalls.

If worst comes to worst you can always go home, devour a cannister of Pringles, and try to ignore the hunger pangs until morning, at which time you can gather with your friends for brunch. But be warned; even if you slink into a low-profile diner with visions of nothing grander than toast and coffee, you won't be seated or served until all your party has arrived, no matter how plummily you harrumph and ask for Marmite; and once they've all arrived - there will still be a wait.