Two years ago, chef Bryan Calvert (Bouley, Union Pacific) and his wife Deborah Williamson opened James, a seasonal neighborhood restaurant on a quiet corner in Prospect Heights. Major buzz abounded from the get-go and a few months later, heavyweight critics including the Brunster dropped by to weigh in. After some glowing reviews, wait times surged and the place has been consistently busy ever since. But for Deborah Williamson, owner/GM/host, James is still a labor of love—in fact the couple live right above the restaurant and spend seven days a week perfecting every detail. We recently caught up with Williamson to discuss the best way to snag at table at this always-crowded neighborhood spot.
Deborah Williamson, Co-owner: My husband has been living in this building for 12 years. I moved in seven years ago, kicking and screaming. He promised me within six months, if I didn’t like it we’d move back to the West Village. I was slow to come around but after a year I loved it, and now I wouldn’t go back. When Sorrel closed, we snatched this place up.
How were you received by the neighborhood when you opened? It’s such a quiet residential street. We were very warmly received by the neighborhood. Our location is like this little hidden nook. We actually call our block Sesame Street since it's so picturesque. You have to make a little bit of an effort to find us. Favorite seat in the house? The banquette in the front is probably the most spacious. But personally, I love sitting at the bar. It’s the perfect perch. You can see everything and it’s more relaxed and comfortable.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night, what's my wait time like? It’s all about timing here because we don’t take reservations. If you time it perfectly it could be 20 minutes but usually it’s well over an hour, sometimes two at the max. We’re a neighborhood place so we have people that literally live across the street and they go back and have cocktails and we call them when they’re table is ready. Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, cash or gifts? Ha. No, not really. Being a regular helps. We’ll definitely go out of our way. It’s pretty much first come, first serve. We’re not holding VIP tables. We don’t have room. And actually, no one’s ever offered. We’ll get occasionally a “do you know who I am”?
Do you think it's advantageous to run everything yourselves? It’s a total passion project for us and we take it really personally, almost too personally. So it’s a double-edged sword. We live above, and we’re around all the time, but it also becomes all-consuming. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake up kind of thing. Our lives are so integrated in what we do. We actually have another company that we run together also.
Any favorite customers? We have a nice group of regulars that come in. Two doors down, there’s this great couple that are here three times a week. A lot will call us and tell us they’re popping in. We have one guy that comes in six out of seven nights at the bar. Celebrities? A few. Ours tend to be writers and musicians. A handful of actors. But mostly writers and musicians. Always like a little kick when they walk in. Chefs? Industry Folks? More from Brooklyn. We get a fair amount of those.
What's the most outrageous request you’ve ever been asked? We get on a regular basis people calling and wanting to take over the restaurant on a Saturday night. So it’s not really outrageous but we’re so little and such a neighborhood place, we can’t really do that. Otherwise we get the occasional guest that will come in and they’re complete vegan, lactose-intolerant, etc. but somehow, the kitchen pulls it off. Was there ever a request that you could not accommodate? Not that I can think of. We have a few people that are totally obsessed with the sweetbreads and they’re not on the menu year round. They came in with guests expressly to have them. But obviously we weren’t able to accommodate them with sweetbreads that night.
Were you aware of the reviewers when they were here? We didn’t catch Bruni on all of his but we were aware when he was here during one. Restaurant Girl, obviously we knew about. And the rest completely got by us. When we heard some of them were coming out we were shocked and of course wanted to panic. Even two years ago, it’s amazing how much it’s changed. If we opened a second place and were going through reviews, it would be extremely difficult to have someone here without the staff knowing it. I literally thought I was going to have a heart attack when I knew Bruni was here. I had to go back into the kitchen and catch my breath.
Your reservation system of six or more only, do you find it’s in the diner’s favor? I totally do. Again, if you are desperate to get a table and you don’t’ want to wait, just come early. Don’t show up at 8PM on a Saturday. You might get lucky but usually it’s not going to happen.
Have you ever had a really enormous walk-in party? Not shortly after we opened, we had crazy waits, and on this Saturday night we had these performers from BAM walk in and it was 10:30/11PM and we were still completely full. We only had a table that would seat 6 or 7 people max, and all 16 of them somehow squeezed in. It was pretty amazing. Do you find that its mostly locals that come in or do you find people make the trek from other boroughs? Half and half. On the weekends we get more people from Manhattan. If you’re a regular you know not to come on a Saturday night at 8pm. During the week it’s more regulars.
Any expansion plans? We definitely want to do another project in Brooklyn. The whole concept would be different. So much of it for us would be about finding the right location. If you’d asked me in ’08 I would not have fathomed doing another one after the whole experience of opening I would have said no way. If we had the right space, we’d do it in a heartbeat.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you feel you need to do your job?
Patience, humor. I live in Converse sneakers and almost every shift I sip on these Kambucha Synergy drinks. I'm pretty much obsessed with them. But a sense of humor is definitely the most important thing.
When you’re not here, where do you eat elsewhere? We dine here a fair amount since we’re here everyday. We don’t go out nearly as much as we’d like to. We go out for lunches. We love Dressler, Dumont, Omen in the city, Smith & Mills, The Smile is great for lunch too. When we do go out for dinner we try whatever’s new. We were just at Pulino’s and Kenmare.