Secrets to get the table you want at any restaurant

With the economy so tight, I've been cooking at home more and looking for quick and easy ways to get dinner on the table. So when I do go out, I want to make it really count. I've found that where you sit in a restaurant can have as profound of an effect on your night as what you order. Facing a swinging kitchen door, being banished to a desolate back room, getting wedged next to a cougar birthday blowout: a bad table can really put a damper on your dining experience. But I've learned that you don't need to be a big shot to get the best seat in the house. Here are some tips for scoring a coveted table:

Be Your Own Personal Assistant.
When you call to make your reservation, say you're making it "On behalf of Mr. or Mrs. (your last name)." Try to sound harried but polite. The reservationist will take note, or, at the very least, relate.

Be a Regular.
Instead of bouncing from bistro to grill to cantina, cultivate a relationship with a favorite restaurant. Make a point of telling the owner how much you love their establishment (and how the competing place next door has an underwhelming ribeye). They'll likely reward your loyalty with prime real estate.

If you're bold and somewhat freewheeling with your money, the "slip the host some cash" trick is usually quite effective. I never have the guts for it, but rest assured that this practice is completely acceptable within the restaurant industry. Just try not to be showy about it, and never attempt it with denominations under $10.

Arrive on Time.
This seems obvious (it is) but keep in mind that if you're more than fifteen minutes late, your reserved table is likely to disappear. If you know you're going to be late, always call to alert the restaurant - hosts and managers genuinely appreciate this.

Look Sharp.
In our super-casual country, some people consider their favorite pair of sweats perfectly appropriate for more formal situations. Not to pass judgment on these choices, but just remember that "your lawn" and "a nice restaurant" are very different fashion moments. The front-of-the-house tends to give high-profile tables to well-dressed clientele.

Say It's a Special Occasion
. It's best not to outright lie about a birthday or anniversary - your waiter might stick a candle in your crème brûlée, which can be awkward. But consider telling the host, vaguely, that the night is a special one. Because it is!

Send Yourself Champagne
. If you're planning on ordering champagne or wine with dinner, call ahead (as though you were someone not joining the dinner) and say you'd like to send your party a bottle of champagne. This puts you in the category of people popular and influential enough to have champagne sent to them-which restaurant managers love. When it's delivered, appear surprised but nonchalant. Bonus: your dining companion will be thrilled.

Eating at your own table at home? Here are some delicious dishes to put on it:

Steak Au Poivre

Coq au Vin Stew

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Easy Sole Meuniere