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.
A few months ago, years of dreaming and planning culminated in the opening of Joseph Leonard, Gabriel Stulman's first solo project after his work at The Little Owl and Market Table. Mostly dominated by a bar, the space is meant to be a homey local hang, with a smattering of two tops, one table for four in the rear, and antiques and knick knacks all over. Given the waits, it looks like the neighborhood is taking to it. Let's see how Gabe gets it done.
Gabriel Stulman, Manager/Owner: We’ve got seven tables with sixteen seats and there’s another seventeen at the bar. It's 8 PM on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table? We are pretty much built for parties of two. Where it gets challenging is with parties of four. We only have one table for four and that’s when waits can get aggressive. The waits can vary—anywhere from a half hour to forty five minutes, to an hour and a half to two hours when we’re busy.
What can I do to make my wait shorter? Oh yeah, there’s a lot of things. The best things here are being rude, loud and obnoxious. Also, name dropping. We’re really weak willed here at the door. ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? Cash or bribes never hurt anybody, but really, just yell at us and be aggressive.
I take it you get a bit of resistance from customers occasionally? I’ll get customers coming in and claiming to have a reservation. ‘You’re right, you must have a reservation. My mistake for thinking we were no reservations. I forgot your tone, we must have misplaced it.’ It hilarious, but it’s awesome too. You can only always be grateful that people want to eat your restaurant. But the best thing is when I’m working the door, I’ve had people come right up to me and say, ‘I’m here for a party of two.’ I explain there’s a wait and they shoot back with ‘I’m a friend of the owner Gabriel,’ and they’ll look me in the face and say that. And introduce myself and you just see their faces. I find that interesting.
Do you have any favorite customers so far? How about celebs? We’re really new and young. There’s the age old mantra that says ‘treat local like celebrities and your celebrities like locals.’ There’s a lot of truth to it and we apply that here. Everyone is a VIP; we’re not going to make this dish any different if you work here or there. My favorites, though, are the people who come in multiple times a week. There’s nothing more gratifying than having people who dine with your four or five nights a week and we have dozens of people who do that.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? The best thing about those kinds of people are the kinds of customers who understand the situation and are happy to see your surviving and succeeding. Those people come in and say, ‘Oh Gabe, you’re too busy. See you tomorrow Gabe!’ Most of those people are the people that live around here and are happy for me to take down their number and come back in a bit.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you could accommodate? We have this one customer who only eats lunch here. He has been looking at our dinner menu and there are some differences in the menu. So one day he asked if we could make the steak au poivre at lunch. Sure, no problem we’d do that for him. So then he asks how much fat was on the steak and if we trim any fat off. Of course we trim the fat and break down the meat into portions. So he said, ‘can you take that excess fat and add that to my steak.’ And you’re going to do this for him? Yeah, sure. Why not? I hate when places don’t do substitutes or changes. My attitude is always, ‘sure, no problem.’ Any requests that you could not accommodate? I don’t know if we’ve actually turned somebody down. I’m sure we have, but somehow it’s a lot easier for me to remember things we’ve done.
So how are things going now that you're your own boss here? I’ve been my own boss always, both at Market Table and The Little Owl. What’s different this time is that I have more input on the food. The people that I worked with at those restaurants didn’t have anything to do with the front of house or the beverage service, they ran the food. We all did our own roles. What’s different here is that I’m doing everything that I have been doing and I’m putting more input in on the menu. Shit, it’s nice. It feels more relaxing, even though I have more responsibility here.
You live in the building, with your girlfriend who also works here. Any downside to always being here? Not yet, it just keeps getting better. My girlfriend manages the days, I take care of the nights. Vertical integration to the fullest, man. All of the sudden, it was the week we were opening and this apartment came up. Shit, I never thought about moving the week I was opening a restaurant. It was a hard week. I feared that I would never be able to escape, but actually, I can sneak away—well, in theory I can do that. Maybe in a few months when things settle down. Right now, I have this apartment upstairs that I never see.
We interviewed you for this column back in '06. Has anything changed about your philosophy since The Little Owl? There’s a lot that is the same in the context of gatekeepers. I know that back then, and I still feel the same way now, there's that sense of gratitude toward the people who are dining at your restaurant. What’s different? No reservations versus reservations. I like no reservations way more. There’s less expectation and there’s less sense of entitlement from the guest. I think that when people make a reservation a month in advance, there is more of a sense of an expectation of the meal or, ‘this shit better be awesome and you better live up to that.’ That’s an awesome challenge and I embrace that, but with no reservations it’s way more casual and, I think, more fun.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? I think it would gratitude, patience and the ability to swallow your pride. Let go of your ego. When you're not at Joseph Leonard, where are you eating? It’s pathetic, man. It’s a sad state of affairs. A lot of food to-go. Monday night the restaurant is closed. What did I do this past Monday night? Holy Basil to go. Took home some Thai food, ate on the couch with my lady—that’s Monday night dinner.