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.
Union Square Cafe needs little by way of introduction. Suffice it to say that while it may not be the New York trailblazer it once was, at 23 (opened in October, 1985) it remains an essential restaurant in Manhattan and certainly one of the very hardest at which to get a table during prime hours. Danny Meyer is the kingpin behind the New American, of course, but his staffers on site are your day-to-day in. Meet Dina Milan, USC "Dining Room/Guest Relations Manager." (And as a sidebar matter, compare and contrast this gatekeeper to Laura at Eleven Madison Park to see how amazingly consistent the Meyer hospitality machine is.)
Dina Millan, Dining Room/Guest Relations Manager: "USC seats 130 with an additional 15 seats at the bar counter. My favorites? It really depends on who I'm dining with and what the situation is – the banquettes in the garden room are very cozy, the mezzanine is more private and the front room is active and buzzing." 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? "We are lucky enough to be reserved at prime time on a Saturday night for most of the year; however, the bar counter seats are always first come, first served. The bar wait for two can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour – timing is everything!" Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? "Unfortunately, no." ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? "Absolutely not."
Tell us about your favorite customers? Any celebs been by recently? "Having worked here for over four years, I've gotten to know so many of our regular guests?I couldn't possibly name them all! I love working in a restaurant where, on any given night, I personally know a large percentage of the guests dining with us. It feels like home. We do see a lot of celebs which is fun, especially the downtown locals. I was particularly excited to meet Walter Cronkite several months ago." How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? "We offer what we do have and make a note that they prefer earlier or later, there are sometimes last minute cancellations." ...the owner's friends? "All of Danny's friends are great about calling in advance!"
What's the most outrageous request from a customer you've had to accommodate? "We really pride ourselves on going above and beyond for our guests so many requests don't seem so outrageous to us, for example: writing personalized menus, hailing cabs, printing recipes, looking up information about nearby clubs and theater?we do a lot of Googling for our guests." ...that you couldn't accommodate? An assistant for a "prince" called and wanted 14 people (our largest table accommodates up to 8 guests) and demanded that all women be completed covered, no skin showing, and be seated at least ten feet from his table." What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? "A good night's sleep!"