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.
When Buttermilk Channel opened at the end of last year, it was met with a considerable amount of buzz among the blogging world and quickly became a neighborhood favorite with the locals. When Bruni took the F train to Carroll Gardens, he gave it a heartfelt onespot, making the restaurant more of a destination. All of this culminated with what has arguably been Buttermilk Channel's biggest asset--their part in the Fried Chicken Craze of '09. To be a part of any of it, you'll have to get past Doug Crowell.
Doug Crowell, Owner We’ve got about sixty seats. It sort of depends on how you configure things here in the restaurant. I love to sit in the corners at the bar and the communal table is fun. It's 8 PM on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table? The wait for a table can be anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours during prime time on a Saturday night. The wait can really be that long sometimes.
What can I do to make my wait shorter? My hosts and I really try to bend over backwards to make everyone’s wait as short as possible and to really give you an accurate estimate of how long your wait is going to be. I am one hundred per cent democratic—no one is going to get a table faster than someone else. ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? You know, no one has ever tried that. Maybe because it’s Brooklyn? Maybe if you open a restaurant in Manhattan you’ll get to experience that? Yeah, I’ve always felt like that’s part of the experience for people eating out in Manhattan. They want to feel like they were in an insider and got the edge by palming you a twenty.
Do you have any favorite customers so far? We’ve got so many local regulars. We’ve built a great base of people from the neighborhood who’ve become great customers and close friends to everyone here. How about celebs? We get some, but I wouldn’t want to make them uncomfortable by mentioning them here. But, we do get lots—and I don’t recognize them because I’m not in touch with the music world—but we do get lots of Brooklyn music people who live around here that my waiters point out to me.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? Most people are very understanding and they know that we’re being completely fair and when I explain the reality of the situation that they’re going to have to wait an hour and a half they’re understanding. It’s unfortunate that because they’ve been in a bunch of times or they know me from somewhere some people think that they should get a table before someone else.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you could accommodate? Ryan, the chef, is really understanding with requests and he will do everything we can to make things possible. We run into trouble when people want to take stuff to-go. Some of our most popular items don’t really work well outside the restaurant—like fried chicken or the pecan pie sundae. Any requests that you could not accommodate? When we have oysters, people want to take those to-go, and that’s something we just feel a little squeamish about. It just seems wrong.
You've had fried chicken on the menu since you opened and it seems like everyone else started doing that this year. What item on your menu right now is going to become the next big food trend? We definitely benefited from the Fried Chicken Craze of 2009. The chef and I have discussed what will happen when the backlash comes. We can adapt, the fried chicken can leave the menu. I don’t know, 2010 will be the duck meatloaf year. How would the regulars feel about the fried chicken leaving? If it didn’t sell. We’ll keep serving it as long as people still love it.
Would you ever consider venturing into Manhattan? The next time that Robert DeNiro wants to open a hotel in Manhattan and he needs an operator to open that with him, I want to be there. I grew up in Manhattan and love it, but it’s just a different world compared to Brooklyn. There are many things you can do in Manhattan that you can do because of the density of the population, that you can’t do in Brooklyn. You can make your concept a lot narrower. I was thinking about doing a seafood restaurant, but there’s just not the density to support that many people who just want to eat fish on any given night. But in Manhattan, you can open a macaroni and cheese restaurant.
What about the no resy policy. Does it make things more relaxed? We take reservations for parties of five or more. I feel like I basically do that as a service to customers who want to come here with those large parties because you can’t expect people to wing it. But for the most part, no, I think it’s much better for our main customer base to be able to walk in the door and be told they’ll be seated in a reasonable time. When you have reservations, you have the reality of my neighbors walking in on a Saturday night at 6:30 and the place is empty and we have to say we can’t seat them because we have reservations at 7.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? The people with me at the door. My hosts, my manager (at Sunday brunch it’s my wife Laura), those people are absolutely priceless. Someone who has a great sence of hospitality but can also do the air traffic control element of the job where you’re coordinating the dining room with the waitlist. When you're not at Buttermilk Channel, where are you eating? In Brooklyn, I have brunch all the time General Greene, I live in Fort Greene. I might be down the street at Frankie’s or Prime Meats because both of those places are awesome. In Manhattan, I can’t stop eating at Locanda Verde, I think that’s the most wonderful restaurant. It’s just crazy. You’re really trying to work that DeNiro thing. I’m absolutely serious. It’s just such an awesome place. I went there and thought, “yes, I could be a part of this.”