THE NEW YORK TIMES
IT happened one fateful night in Bette's young and thus far elegant life, that set piece of affront and appeasement played time and again in New York's better restaurants.
Ray Pirkle, the young and congenial general manager of Bette, escorted a guest to a table in the back corner of the restaurant's mezzanine.
''I was told he wanted to conduct business,'' Mr. Pirkle said. ''He decided I was belittling him. He told me he was the president of whatever company and that you shouldn't judge people on their appearance. I told him I didn't have any negative attitude toward that table. He was convinced I had seated him in Siberia.''
Ah, Siberia. For there to be good seats, there must, after all, also be bad seats. These days, however, even the most au courant restaurateurs have a good reason to avoid that toxic combustion of self-important diner and questionable seat: money. Faced with an increasingly competitive marketplace and ever-savvier diners, the owners of many new restaurants have taken pains to maximize the number of appealing seats.
''We just try to seat everybody in the way we feel will make the maximum numbers in the dining room,'' said Amy Sacco, the owner of Bette, who has built a groovy reputation as the impresario of places like Bungalow 8.
An optimist might call this quest quixotic; a realist might call it mendacity. Human nature being what it is, you can put three tables in a room and one -- the closest to the window or the one where Nicole Kidman sat last week -- will become more desirable.
Restaurateurs, then, must figure out how to cultivate the glow of celebrity without alienating the bulk of their paying clientele. This is easier to do at small places (merely getting into Serge Becker's La Esquina is enough), and the exhaustive focus on food at places like Per Se can effectively sublimate status anxiety.
But equality essentially begins with the dining room. At Perry St., Jean-Georges Vongerichten's latest venture, an ingenious arrangement of banquettes has been used to create five corner tables -- often among the most coveted seats in the house -- in the middle of the room.
Similarly, at the center of the cavernous main dining room of Matsuri, in the basement of the Maritime Hotel, sits a long, low wall, against which press some of the restaurant's most popular booths. That wall intersects another, shorter wall, a T-shaped configuration that maximizes the number of people who can enjoy the primal pleasure of eating with their back to a wall. Only 32 of the room's 180 seats are at freestanding tables.
''It's much more democratic,'' said Orran Farmer, the maitre d'hotel. ''I don't just have four booths. I've got booths all over the main dining room, and they are all the same.''
And at Bette, the east wall of the main dining room, like the west side, is lined with tables, not booths or banquettes. ''Most everyone who is coming into my place is all hierarchy,'' Ms. Sacco said. ''If I only had one row of booths, they'd all think I didn't like them. It's easier to make it one beautiful room.'' She and her designer, Diana Vinoly, have even discussed altering the mezzanine to make it brighter and more appealing.
''What I'm working for when I do a restaurant is not that old image of society,'' Ms. Vinoly said. ''What I'm working on now is the new society, which is the mixture of artists and painters and people in the movies, the kind of people who are where they are not because they were well born.''
This is a far cry from the unabashed snobbery that characterized places like the Stork Club. ''If you look at the history of restaurant design, it used to be much more tied to class distinctions,'' said David J. Lewis, the director of the graduate program in architecture at the Parsons School of Design. ''The idea of a totally egalitarian system would have been unthinkable.''
Seating status can evolve in several ways. In part, it is design. The best seats are often the ones that give people the feeling they can see without being seen. The archetypal power seat is a booth against a wall, with a good view of a restaurant's entrance.
''It's really not rocket science,'' said Mr. Becker, who designed Lure Fishbar, B Bar and Grill and Joe's Pub. ''Being against the wall is a control position. That's primal. It comes from back in the hunter-gatherer times.''
Status location can also have more to do with serendipity than design. At the Four Seasons, the clubby grill room, not the pool room, heats up at lunchtime, though one might have thought its plashing water would give the pool room a natural advantage. At first, it did. Julian Niccolini, a managing partner, said that when he started working at the Four Seasons, in 1977, ''people wouldn't sit in the grill room if you gave the food away.'' But soon after he arrived, three men changed all this.
''Philip Johnson showed up without a reservation,'' Mr. Niccolini said, ''and the pool room was full, so he sat in the grill room.'' Around the same time, John Fairchild, then the publisher of Women's Wear Daily, established a beachhead there. The grill room achieved critical mass as the place to be seen with Alexander Liberman, then the editorial director of Conde Nast.
Celebrity, of course, plays a huge role in status. Matsuri reserves the banquettes along the south wall for V.I.P.'s. When Bill Clinton goes to Spice Market, he is seated on the far side of the central staircase. Michael McCarty, the owner of Michael's, admits to having directed traffic in his restaurant's front room to create a high-profile parking lot for media executives.
Most restaurateurs, however, are loath to discuss such machinations. ''We don't want to create a Siberia and throw gasoline on the fire,'' said John McDonald, an owner of Lever House (where power booths preside over the main dining room just as they do at the neighboring Four Seasons). He has taken an egalitarian tack in designing his newest ventures, Lure Fishbar, in SoHo, and Chinatown, a 250-seat Chinese brasserie scheduled to open in the spring in the old Time Cafe and Fez space.
''We're specifically crafting it so there are several options, so it's not so clear-cut,'' Mr. McDonald said of the design for Chinatown. ''One section is two steps up to a raised platform. If you're sitting there, you'll be staged and can look over the rest of the dining room. At the same time there's the centerpiece of the dining room, which has a squarelike banquette section. They are almost all equal.''
Similarly, Earl Monroe's Restaurant, scheduled to open on Oct. 6 in Riverbank State Park in Harlem, will have an upscale menu and a sweep of glass with views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge that run the entire 140-foot length of the dining room. But the dining room is only 20 feet wide.
''Everyone will have a view here,'' said John Lowy, Mr. Monroe's partner in the restaurant. ''There is no Siberia.''
Not yet, anyway.