Sorry I'm late to this, but a few observations:
I have always felt tables were left open on busy evenings--and have even felt this at Gramercy Tavern where I know the wine director and pastry chef--not necessarily left open for the whole seating, but longer than necessary to accomodate celebs, food writers, screwed up reservations, regulars and other chefs that might drop in at the last minute. Other reasons why I've seen tables left open inexplicably long--even at top restaurants--is because the kitchen might be crunched, the chef isn't there and/or the overall staff might be in the weeds or be understaffed that shift. Especially in a restaurant that prides itself on customer service--granted a rarity--but I've wondered if this wasn't a purposeful form of self-protection. I don't know about the rest of you--but once I am seated, I want reasonable and focused service; I'd rather sit at the bar drinking an apertif rather than be seated in a dining room frustrated with harried or slow service. If a few tables are left open to bring this about--I won't complain. (I guess this is tacit support of Cabrales' initial point #3)
Moving on to Le Cirque and the "dinosaurs"--I have to say I'm solidly with Steven on this one. (Unlike Wilfrid, I'd love to see the dinosaur ethos become extinct.) "The chickens have come home to roost" and it has "fallen off the radar" and any other cliches one might want to trot out apply to Le Cirque. Savvy, knowing foodies moved on a long time ago from this power lunch-celeb spotting bastion of preferential treatment. It takes more than pedestrian cooking to stay relevant today, even in a theatrically-designed space--especially in NYC where there are such high restaurant standards.
Dining philosophies and sensibilities have changed, and the relationship between diner and restaurant has become more equitable, too--for the better, I'd suggest. For the media, it's clearly all about the chef now--and it's much harder to front the "restaurateur as celeb" as in the past. The food media has also pushed along two tracks--a modern chef's food either has to be rustic, authentic and simple or innovative, stylish and creative. Or both simultaneously. Le Cirque was neither.
On the dessert side, it takes more than tired creme brulee and bomboloni--how much longer can we read about Le Cirque's unrequited "looking for the world's greatest executive pastry chef" and not become suspect? This marketing strategy worked in 1989 and the nascent media bought it then--but times have changed. Unless Sirio installed Philippe Conticini or Alberto Adria (and even then there would still be legitimate debate) we know better now. It's much tougher to sell "the experience" of the "private club" as Steve P. accurately describes it-- without the talent to back it up--and selling "exclusivity" now is like Salon.com charging for premium content.
I'd suggest Steven is right on with his expressed resentment of Le Cirque and all it stood for--and that any bastions which cling to a medeival-type of customer class system will soon be irrelevant. Expect a pronounced pr campaign to alter this perception. Chalk another one up to Danny Meyer and credit the oft-abused food media (talentless shill Bill Boggs excepted) for helping to define a new relevance--where Ducasse and Daniel exist alongside the likes of Craft and Prune.
And thanks to Cabrales for his thougtful, provoking lead in to another possibly limitless thread--that of elitism and a diner's perception of the restaurant experience. To Cabrales, I'd say I always put myself in the chef's hands--either off the regular menu, the tasting menu or simply ask the chef to choose for me--and I have never asked for anything special, i.e. substitutions or "special" off-menu dishes, ever. I want to capture a moment or an experience as determined by that chef at that time. As often as feasible, I ask that the chef, rather than the sommelier alone, select wines for each one of his courses. (And I'd never bring a bottle of my own wine into a restaurant that has a wine list. Just a quirk of mine. It would be like someone pouring their own chocolate sauce over one of my desserts.)
But Steve P.--I wonder if you're not wading into dangerous territory by defining--for the generic "us"--"why we go to restaurants" for "special treatment" and that there is "no better service than 'custom service'." (I may be inferring something you didn't intend Steve P., but this is possibly as risky as your attempts to define for "us" what is and what is not art on another thread.)
Back to Cabrales--I do derive immense, special joy from those "gifts" or unexpected "amuse" from the chef that you were specifically excluding in your original post. To sum up, I'd say that the scarcity factor has zero relevance for me--but the "surprise" factor and "lessening of control" factor has much more.
And finally, my hope is with Steven, that we on eGullet help diners, both casual and sophisticated, realize that they are more than just customers in a business transaction when they are in a restaurant--that their patronage has value and that the relationship between diner and chef and restaurant holds hope and promise--and that we on eGullet help to empower that relationship both ways.