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Use that holiday gift certificate before it's too late 'If the restaurant declares bankruptcy, get in line with the rest of the creditors.'

Did you get a restaurant gift certificate for Christmas?

Call up and reserve a table right now.

It's a cold cruel world out there and even the most successful place can lock its doors without much warning. The most upscale of places can go out of business; never mind that cozy little neighborhood boite.

Be warned.

There was a spate of surprising closings at the end of last year, and suddenly I started hearing from readers who must have tucked gift certificates in the back of a seldom-opened drawer.

One guy had one dated December 2005.

What, for heavens sake, was he waiting for? Was he simply not hungry? Delayed gratification is the mark of maturity, sure.

But let's be practical here.

Reality check: My correspondent is probably out of luck. His gift might make an attractive framed picture or table napkin, but he's going to end up eating peanut butter sandwiches at home.

If the restaurant declares bankruptcy, he can get in line with the rest of the creditors. Good luck.

Or, he can become a detective. He might be able to track down the owners and appeal to their good offices. Surprisingly, that could even work.

In the past, there have been restaurant owners who made good on outstanding certificates, usually by directing the holders to another restaurant where a previous arrangement has been made.

But note that it is the certificate holder who must make the effort -- he might locate the former owners by consulting with the new restaurant that has taken over the defunct site, for instance. Because even the most honorable restaurateur is not going to proclaim his generous arrangement for all the world to hear.

Carpe diem.

Don't hoard those slips of paper for your 25th wedding anniversary. Put on your fancy duds; go out and enjoy dinner. After all, that's what the person who gave you the thing in the first place wanted you to do.

But before you go, read the fine print. Can the certificate be used on weekends? Does it include drinks, wine and/or gratuity?

Does it have an expiration date?

You might think all these stipulations take unfair advantage but you have no choice but to pay attention. You have to play the game.

That game involves being a model patron: Make a reservation ahead of time. And tell the server at the outset that you are going to use a certificate. I advise using the certificate to the max -- because not every restaurant is going to give you "change," although you can inquire about that.

Actually, many restaurateurs are secretly hoping you are going to "order up" and spend more money. A lot of people do. That's just one reason why restaurants love certificates and issue them in the first place.

The other reason is the fact that people tend to forget about them. So don't.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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