The staff of Grand Tier Restaurant in the Metropolitan Opera House waited expectantly, as it always does, on Paul Newman night.
The actor and his wife, Joanne Woodward, visit several times a season, and Erik Rothman, the tuxedoed manager, had set aside a prime table with a perfect view of the Chagall murals.
Placido Domingo was performing that night in Samson et Dalila, so tables had been booked for weeks at the restaurant, where only operagoers who have paid up to $200 a ticket have the privilege of dining for an average cost of $80 a person.
Promptly at 6 p.m., a non-descript man with black hair sidled up the grand staircase and presented himself to Michelle Tanhoff, the hostess. "I'm Mr. Newman," he said.
"We always wonder whether the real Paul Newman will show up, and we take bets on it," Ms. Tanhoff said. "That night, I lost. It was Mr. Impostor again. He's done this before." (And got a table every time.)
The faux Newman, whoever he is, is hardly a criminal genius operating in splendid isolation. More and more, maitres d'hotel and restaurateurs say, people will do just about anything to get a table at the hottest restaurants in the nation's most competitive foodie town.
They lie. They cheat. And yes, they steal.
"The chutzpah was incredible," said Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker who arrived at Bouley Bakery last month, only to discover that a party of six had, well, fibbed about their name so they could take the table from Toobin's party of six. The impostors seemed to have read the reservation book upside-down and backward. "The restaurant people asked them to give up the table. They refused."
He sighed. "It was one of those possession-is-nine-tenths- f-the-law situations," said Toobin, a legal analyst who wrote a bestselling book on the O.J. Simpson trial. "We didn't want to make a scene, and finally the restaurant improvised a table for us. All we wanted to do was eat dinner."
Unfortunately, that is all that everyone in New York seems to want to do these days, at least in certain celebrated spots.
"The demand is greater than at any time in the last 20 years," said Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat Restaurant and Hotel surveys. "It's the economic boom. There is strong domestic demand from young financial wizards for whom price is no object, plus strong international demand from those accustomed to paying twice as much for a meal in Europe or Asia."
All that demand has turned getting a reservation into a trial by frustration, and often by busy signal _ for the simply star-struck diner as well as for the plainly larcenous one. To make matters worse, some restaurants, Jean Georges among them, will not accept reservations more than 30 days in advance.
And so, scarcity has prompted some to adopt the old end-justifies-the-means mentality, and Zagat himself could be a poster boy for victimization: Dozens of maitres d'hotel have called to tell him that diners have made false reservations under his name. Now when he makes reservations he tells restaurants to confirm with his office.
"I was unprepared for the very great amount of lying," said Alain Michel, restaurant director of Jean Georges, the star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's New French bastion in the Trump International Hotel on Central Park West. "So many people say that they called for a reservation and then claim that we lost it." They feign shock and indignation when the restaurant doesn't have the reservation that was never made, he said.
Jean Georges has been forced to treat its reservation holders as if they were Holiday Inn customers: They are required to phone a special line on The Day, validating their call by offering a confirmation number.
These days, the bestiary of shameless restaurant prevaricators includes not only celebrity impersonators and outright thieves, but also owners' best pals, name droppers, epic bards, bribers and great intimidators. The celebrity impersonators practice their craft in all manner of ways. Call it lying a la carte. At the Grand Tier, the staff doesn't even know if the pseudo Paul Newman's name really is Paul Newman, "because he always pays in cash," Rothman said.