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The Gatekeepers: Kefi's Donatella Arpaia

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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.

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Krieger, 2/4/09

Upper West Side: In early December, Donatella Arpaia and Michael Psilakis reopened their recession-friendly UWS hit Kefi in a sweeping space on Columbus and 84th. Though the new Kefi is magnitudes larger than their original small space on 79th Street, it is still bustling and increasingly difficult to get into without a reservation. And this is all before it gets the stamp of approval from the Brunz and Mr. Adam Platt. If you are stuck waiting at the front, the striking woman above, Ms. Arpaia, is who you should be chatting up. Maybe she'll get you in ahead of the other guy.

Donatella Arpaia, co-owner: There are a little over 200 maybe 210, 220 seats in the restaurant. I like the two corners that we have upstairs, but each room has a different feeling. If I'm with a big group, I want a big table downstairs in the back. If not, the first room downstairs is very cozy.

8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table?

Without reservation, an hour. With a reservation...we're getting better. There have been times when people wait up to a half hour. We're trying to get it down to a 10 to 15 minute wait. It depends on the customers. For example, if it's raining, all of the early seating comes 10 minutes late. We have to account for no shows. There are so many factors. Over time, you try to see a trend, and once you see a trend, you can predict what will happen and improve.

Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? Be nice to the hostess. I know it sounds like a simple rule, but sometimes two or three tables come in at the same time. And it makes a difference. If you're being condescending, she's going to seat the nicer table first....How about gifts or cash to speed things along? Tipping? I'm on the floor every night, and I really don't encourage it. Sure people try it all the time. People give me money all the time and I give it back to them. And if people stuff it in my face, then i just give it to my staff. To me what really makes a difference is if you're a regular. If you come on a quiet night and you say to one of us, 'I'm going to come in a lot. Can you put my name in the system?' People come a lot but they'll make reservations under different names. We have a database where we import the names from the other restaurants, so we'll recognize you if you're a repeat customer.

Speaking of regulars, tell us about your favorite customers? Any celebs been by recently? A lot of regulars have been by. Celebrities...who's been in so far? No one big yet. The woman from Curb Your Enthusiasm, what's her name? Susie Essman? Yes, Susie. Petra Nemcova's been in. The Channel 7 news anchor. Celebs did go to the old Kefi, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. We're so busy, but we haven't been reviewed yet by anyone, so a lot of people still don't know about it.

How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? I give them attention mostly. I'll send them to the bar and make sure the bartender notices them. Or I'll get them a drink myself. Mostly, I'll just talk to them. The biggest problem with VIPs or anyone is if you hide from the guest and ignore them, which some of my girls do sometimes. You have to keep updating them, even if it's taking longer than it was supposed to take. It's hard, but that's when your charm comes in. People always ask me, do you treat some people extra special? And for me to say no, that would be a lie. If someone comes a hundred times, I'm going to give them extra special treatment. That said, there shouldn't be such a big disparity if we don't know you. It should be good no matter what. We still want to have walk ins come. We can't show elitism at the door. It conflicts with our neighborhood vibe.

What's the most outrageous request from a customer you've had to accommodate? I've heard it all, I've seen it all. The portions at Kefi are really sizable so people take things home in doggy bags all the time, but what completely boggles my mind is that people will request to-go containers for two bites of something left on their plate, I'm not exaggerating. I know Michael's food is delicious, but consider the environment people!

...that you couldn't accommodate? We'll get calls from people who are on the latest pre-packaged food diet asking if we can plate their diet food and serve it to them at the table as if they ordered off the menu with everybody else they're dining with so they're not embarrassed. I can't let that tasteless diet food land on tables in my restaurant from Michael's kitchen! Also, parents will bring Happy Meals into the restaurant for their kids to eat at the table while they order off the menu when we have a kids menu at Kefi.

How does it compare to the other Kefi? It's harder to manage. It's much harder, because it's like a having two restaurants. I'm running a walk in list and I'm running a reservation list. Every night it's a free for all with how many walk ins we get. No one expected it to be this busy, especially because we opened in December. We wanted a week or two to adjust. This weekend we had 50 reservations for brunch and then we had 100 walk ins. Michael was busing tables, and I'm in the front doing the door. The girls behind me are crying, because the customers are mean and I have to tell them to get a thick skin.

Where are you eating when you're not at Kefi? At the newest restaurant that opens, because that's what I do. I can't wait to go to the new Daniel. I know everyone's talking about the economy and tightening the belt, and that's what I'm doing. But I still think there's a place for special occasions. I like the bar at Sushi Yasuda. For classic Italian i love Fiorini. J.G Melon for a good burger.
· Previous Installments of The Gatekeepers [~E~]
· Eater Inside: Kefi [~E~]

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