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.
Building off of the success of the original Flatiron location, Chef Seamus Mullen and his team opened Boqueria Soho just over a year ago. Especially when compared to the tiny original spot, the Soho digs are bigger, flashier and she has a shiny open kitchen with a chefs counter to boot. Since then, tourists and neighborhood locals alike have navigated the crowds of Spring Street to sample some of Mullen's tapas. All this, combined with the fact that the restaurant doesn't take resys for parties under six, means you might run into a bit of a wait. To give it a go, you'll have to talk with Joel Steiger:
Joel Steiger, General Manager: We have 85 seats in the dining room, with 10 at the chefs counter that overlooks the kitchen. Plus another 20 seats in the front between the bar stools and the lounge area. I really don’t sit down that often in the restaurant, but when I do get a chance to sit down I love to sit at the chefs counter.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table? I wish it were that predicable. We do take reservations for larger groups and set aside about twenty per cent of the restaurant for those parties. The rest is for walk ins of various sizes. Also, tapas are just so different then traditional three course meal. People may come in and may be tentative to order too much because they’re unsure about the size of the tapas and they end up ordering more and more and then the sangria kicks. So that whole process can take diners a lot more than normal. But during prime time, the wait can be anywhere around 20 to 40 minutes.
What can I do to make my wait shorter? Sure, they can stand at the host stand and ask a lot of questions. Tell us how to do our job. And that goes over well? Oh yeah. ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? If it’s well wrapped with my son’s name on it.
Do you have any favorite customers so far? I think people that dine with us often, who remember our names, that people that understand the process of dining out on a Saturday night. A lot of these people know that if we’re too busy, we’ll do our best to accommodate them in the bar or the lounge. We are a newer restaurant, but we do have neighborhood regulars and that’s starting to pick up more and more. How about celebs? We get our share of celebrities. I have a quick story about one. Ashton Kutcher came in a few times. One time he came in the middle of the afternoon. I ordered dates for him, it’s a really special dish here and everyone orders them. I thought I was doing something nice. I bring them and explain what they are and he says “thank you.” Thirty minutes later he hasn’t eaten any of them. He’s a vegetarian and our dates are wrapped with bacon. I didn’t do my homework. But he was really gracious about it. Is he really a vegetarian, or was he just “punking” you? I mean, I hadn’t thought about that, but hopefully not. We’ll see.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? We try not to let those guests leave the restaurant, because once they do, there are so many other options available to them. So we can go to them with Cava or some small tapa, because people who come in just want a space and want to eat. We just want to make sure we can provide them with something and make them feel comfortable so they’ll want to stay and have dinner with us.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you could accommodate? People asking us to work around specific allergies is really becoming more prevalent. But not really, all our food is really super fresh and built that moment so our kitchen can really adapt to what someone wants. But it’s only been a year.Any requests that you could not accommodate? I think we definitely saw more of that at the Flatiron location. We’ve been open there three years now and have a neighborhood appeal. They definitely like to change things up a little more often. Things are pretty straight forward here. Except for one thing. I’m not sure if this is really an outrageous request, but the tourists that come in and order the Tortilla Espanola always say it’s never as good as the one their mother made. That’s one thing that we haven’t been able to solve.
You mentioned that tourists can be tricky to deal with, do you see Soho as a tough area to find your footing in because of that? Of course it is challenging. I don’t want to sit back and say that it’s easy. Kin Kao, the restaurant that was here before us, did it. Hopefully we can repeat what they’ve done. The tourists just have a different set of expectations than our neighborhood locals and we definitely try to tailor an experience toward them.
You’re no reservations except for parties of six or more. Do you feel that system is beneficial to diners? They probably don’t see it as a benefit. But I think it is. I think there’s something to be said, especially with the tapas concept, that you can drop in to eat at any time. And I also think that it sets a different expectation for the customer. A reservation is like an implied contract—this table must be ready by this time.
Do you have a lot of people coming in to meet Seamus since Next Iron Chef aired? Oh no doubt. It was wonderful exposure of him personally and professionally and for us as a business. It creates such great top of mind awareness for people and its amazing how media has the ability to cross all sections of people. There’s a lot of beautiful women that come in and demand to see Seamus. Sometimes he’ll be up at Flatiron and it’s tough because a lot of hearts get broken if he’s not here.
Do you find that people have to get used to the concept of ordering tapas style? It’s funny; women seem to intuitively get the concept more than men do. And I don’t want to say anything bad about men, but they like their steak, they like their entrée—it’s their thing. While women have an amazing understanding of how to share and it just works well for them. People appreciate the fact that they can taste such a variety of dishes without being taken to the cleaners financially.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? Empathy is really critical. But I think it goes beyond that, it needs to be a part of your culture and be rooted in the people you surround yourself with.
When you're not at Boqueria, where are you eating? Actually, I’m not really eating out. My wife and I have a six month old. So I’m here and at home with them for the most part. But I did take my management team out to Barbuto recently. We had a great experience there. Before my son was born, we went to Peasant a lot and always walked away feeling really good about everything there. Oh, and about a month ago we went to Roberta’s in Brooklyn and that was just a really good experience in terms of being really well taken care of.