This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Eleven Madison Park is less famous than its older sisters, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. But with its Danny Meyer brand hospitality and three-starred kitchen, helmed by Daniel Humm, its just about has hard to score a good table here as it is at the other two. Knowning Meyer, if you called his office and had the right sob story he'd sort you out. But it's also good to know Laura Wagstaff, Guest Relations Manager and, as you're about to read, graduate of the Danny Meyer school of diplomacy.
Laura Wagstaff, Guest Relations Manager: "We have 39 tables and 114 seats. My favorites are the corner tables and the tables by the windows overlooking Madison Square Park." 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? "For walk-ins, the wait for the dining room is most likely around an hour and a half. But, we do serve an a la carte menu at our bar where we don't take reservations and the wait is considerably less." Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter?
"Patience is definitely a virtue. We want our guests to dine with us much as they want to, and we do everything in our power to seat them as quickly as possible. We know what it's like to be hungry and we try to be as empathetic as possible." ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? "Definitely not (and please don't try!)." Tell us about your favorite customers? Any celebs been by recently? "I have many, though there are two types of guests I especially love taking care of: the really excited first-time diners and our regulars who truly feel like a part of our family. As for celebrities, they dine here with relative frequency but I'd never feel good about naming names." How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? "We're generally able to figure something out." ...Danny's friends? "Normally people are great about calling ahead and not just dropping in."
What's the most outrageous request from a customer you've had to accommodate? "We don’t view outrageous or strange requests as burdens but more as opportunities, and it gives our team great pleasure when we’re able to accommodate them. We pride ourselves in doing nice things for people without them having to ask. A regular was having dinner with us and her husband was home sick and unable to join, as she was leaving we surprised her with hot chicken soup to take home to him. Another regular was dining with us for the first time since giving birth to twins, and we had gifts for the newborns waiting on the table." ...that you couldn't accommodate? "We struggle with large parties because we can only take a limited number each night. As a result, we are sometimes unable to accommodate last minute increases in party size. Also, with Shake Shack just across the street and part of our company, we’ve had the occasional guests who have asked for a Shack Burger as their entrée, which is one thing we just don’t feel comfortable accommodating."
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? "Perspective. When a guest walks through our revolving doors we have no idea what kind of day they've had, or what's going on in their life. The charitable assumption should always be in play."