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Server Up

(Online Restaurant Reservations)

President Clinton, it was reported earlier this year, visited his home state sometime around the hyper-hyped date of January 1, 2000. As part of a ceremony, the president was introduced to a man who had been born in Arkansas 96 years ago.

"My, my," the president was supposed to have observed, "I bet you've seen a lot of changes in those 96 years."

"I have," replied the nonagenarian. "And I been agin' ever' one of 'em."

The old Arkansan came to mind when a highly polished press kit recently appeared, announcing that Houston was joining such foodie fairylands (and centers of cyberspace-cadet culture) as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle in having an on-line restaurant reservation service. The company, OpenTable.com, has exactly one restaurant, The Riviera Grill[10655 Katy Freeway, inside the Radisson Suite Hotel, (713)365-9400], actually on-line and receiving reservations through a modified proprietary laptop. In the next few weeks, such landmarks as Tony's[1801 South Post Oak Boulevard, (713)622-6778], Anthony's[4007 Westheimer, (713)961-0552], La Strada[322 Westheimer, (713)523-1014 and 5161 San Felipe, (713)850-9999], Rainbow Lodge[1 Birdsall, (713)861-8666], Tasca [908 Congress, (713)225-9100] and The Rivoli [5636 Richmond, (713)789-1900] are slated to join this brave new world.

The idea of having one more service available on-line at first seems like an inevitable extension of cyberconvenience. However, restaurants are cultural institutions unlike any other. Inns and caravansaries may have provided travelers with some sort of food and fuel for millennia, but the restaurant, as the French spelling suggests, began in France, and fairly recently. In the second half of the 18th century, many members of the French aristocracy lost their fortunes investing in speculative bubble devised by the king's financial adviser, who promised to the sovereign that he could "turn paper into gold." (Does any of this sound familiar? NahhhŠ couldn't be any contemporary parallels there.) The unsuccessful speculators had to downsize their lifestyles. One way to do so was to fire most of the kitchen staff and entertain, when occasion demanded, in restaurants. The French Revolution caused the practice to spread even further through Parisian society. Thus, the restaurant began as an extension of the home where, by definition, one lives one's private life.

Among waiters and waitresses, who have their own myths and legends and teaching stories, there is one told about the overly enthusiastic, inexperienced waiter who approaches a table where a repeat male customer is seated with a woman -- but not the woman he had dinner with last night. The waiter booms out, "Sir, I see we have the honor of serving you for two nights in a row!" The woman, who is the man's wife, then storms out. The newly unemployed waiter soon follows into the cold, dark night.

No, little Gloria, the moral of this teaching story is not that All Men Are Philandering Scum Involved in a Universal Phallocratic Conspiracy. The first evening's woman may have been a niece whose mother does not get along with the wife. She may have been a friend of the wife's who, with the husband, was planning a surprise birthday for the missus. Maybe the wife is a full-blown sociopath and gold digger. And yes, maybe the customer really is not unlike certain Democratic presidents. The point of the story is that a good restaurant professional does not conflate the private life of a customer with his public one. A certain anonymity is what one pays for in a restaurant.

The OpenTable.com software and hardware promises 24-hour-a-day reservation access to its subscriber restaurants at no cost to users. The investors, a group of savvy venture capitalists, are hoping to recoup their $10 million investment -- plus the 100-to-one multiple on the stock issue that modern speculators consider a reasonable return -- by charging restaurants $500 per terminal, along with a $100 monthly fee plus $1 per kept reservation. To use the service, potential diners must give the company a credit card number that the restaurants can then use to charge for no-shows, although this will supposedly be done only with the customers' permission.

In addition to reservations, both Open Table.com and its client restaurants will get to build up great big data banks on their customers. Most restaurants already have computer software that keeps track of checks, monitors how much the bartender is pouring and knows who waited on whom. Combining the two could create extremely detailed profiles of customers' habits, good, bad and indifferent. Who gets to use the data? That, of course, is the $64,000 question facing practically every aspect of on-line business. To join OpenTable.com, you must, in theory, read a waiver agreement and then cyber-sign off on it. Some of the language does not make for the most comfortable reading. In particular, the clause that reads "We do not share your personally identifiable information without your prior consent, except as required by law or legal process or to protect the interests of OpenTable.com" (emphasis added). Two words come to mind upon reading that: Kenneth and Starr.

If that's not a problem, let's scroll down to where it says, "This agreement's terms and conditions may be modified by OpenTable.com at any time without notice. Continued usage of the Service after a change of this Agreement or after implementation of a new policy constitute acceptance of such change of policy." In other words, this is a contract that can mutate any which way OpenTable.com officers and investors want it to, and it's up to you, dear diner, to keep up.

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