Allan Basaran spent twenty years manning the doors at some of Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants before taking a job as the maitre d' at Le Caprice on the Upper East Side. To prepare for his new position, Allan traveled to London to work at the original location and study under the tutelage of Jesus Adorno, a legend in the world of maitre d's. Since Le Caprice's inaugural service last October — a book party for none other than Anna Wintour and Calvin Klein— the restaurant has enjoyed steady business, if a less than kind reception from many of the city's top critics. We recently sat down with Allan to chat about the front of the house operations at this classy British import, and what the odds are of getting one of the restaurant’s twenty tables without a reservation on a busy night.
Allan Basaran, maitre d' at Le Caprice: I worked for an Italian eatery called Nello’s for fourteen years. It is an institution, actually. Last year, I had a chance to meet up with the owner of this company, Richard Caring, and he offered me the job. So I flew to London, I went to all of the sister restaurants, I saw what they were doing, how they are working. I spent a couple of weeks at Le Caprice in London, I had a couple of weeks to work with Jesus Adorno — I admire him. He is the best maitre d' in all over the world. He’s been working for our company for over 28 years. So, I had a chance to learn from him in a short period of time, but he’s been a great tutor to me, and I was really happy to be a part of this family.
It's 8pm Saturday night, what is my wait like? Well, I want to say first of all, we are here to serve people, we are here to welcome people, we are here to help people. Our policy is we try to never say “no.” So what happens is, if it is 8 o’clock, if the restaurant is packed, if there are no tables and reservations are full, we still take customers and we try and give them a wait time of about 20 to 30 minutes. Just an average waiting time for New York. Unless the group is a party of ten, it’s going to be a little longer. But still, we want them to dine here, so we offer them a few drinks at the bar, they take their time, they enjoy themselves, and whatever comes up as the first possibility, we bring them up front and they are happy to wait for it, and we take care of them right away. A lot of people think it might be really hard to get a table here on a busy night. See, we just opened in October, and we had a huge demand, and the one thing we don’t want to do is tell them “you know what, come at 8 o’clock, your table will be ready” and keep them waiting, I don’t like that. I don’t want to say something that is not going to happen. But what I will tell them is, “Sir, madam, you are more than welcome to have a drink with us, if something opens up, we will try to seat you at 8 o’clock. If not, if you are willing to wait 20 or 30 minutes, then we will be more than happy to seat you then.” I can assure you, I haven’t kept anyone waiting more than 35 minutes.
Is there anything anybody can do to make the wait less? Well, I don’t accept gifts. I am totally against accepting gifts or anything else, because my job here is to serve the people who come in, and they are here to have a pleasant time and enjoy their dinner – they are paying for it already. So, my job is to make sure that I welcome them, I keep them company, and make them happy, and leave them happy.
Do you have any favorite customers so far? Everyone is my favorite customer. We cannot classify them. But, if you ask me, who is someone that I really like personally? I had Orlando Bloom here, I like him, I admire his movies, he’s a great actor. I love having Anna Wintour here. And the other person is Glenda Bailey, this is like her second home. And, Mr. Perelman, I don’t know if you know him? He is one of the great customers. Mr. Perelman? Ron Perelman. He’s one of our favorites, comes here three or four times a week.
Would you say that you get a lot of celebs? We do, we do. And one good thing about Le Caprice in New York is that they feel safe and okay here. They enter the way they are coming, there is nobody outside to bother them when they get out, we are very specific, we keep their privacy.
How do you deal with a VIP when there are no tables available? If there is a VIP that shows up without a reservation, and the restaurant is packed? to be honest with you, I will do the best thing that I can for them, but I’m not going to jump on somebody who made a reservation to be in the spot at that time. But somehow, I don’t know how, I think it comes with the years, the maitre d' magic happens, and we figure out something, and it works out perfectly.
Do you find that you have a lot of customers from England? Correct. A lot, a lot. Again, we are an English company, but we are also fortunate to be a part of the Pierre hotel, because Pierre has a huge legacy. So we are here right on 5th avenue, part of the Pierre, the amazing company Le Caprice, so we have a lot of English clientele, who know us, who know our enterprises in London, and they really want to see the same spot in New York.
What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve accommodated at the restaurant? That’s a funny one. The most outrageous was: the first month we opened we had a full book of reservations, and I received a phone call from a co-op owner upstairs, and she said I’m going to be there in ten minutes with ten people. So I said, “I would love to have you here for ten people, but I don’t have a large enough table, give me 45 minutes and let me see if I can do something for you." And, we debated a little bit, and she was down here in half hour, 45 minutes, and she was happy, I was happy. But, in the mid evening everyone wants a table. She also pointed out the table that she wanted. People are very specific, but if we can help them, we help them, and if we can’t we will do our best.
What’s the most outrageous request that you couldn’t accommodate? Somebody asked us to keep the kitchen open past midnight, and I couldn’t do that. Because he was going to Broadway show, and he said "make sure we have somebody in the kitchen," and I said, "I can’t do that." He did not understand that, but, it didn’t work out.
The restaurant received some negative reviews, many of which hinted at the faults of some of the English menu items. How did the restaurant react to that? Well, there are a few things. I think the nature of our food is very continental. It’s not English. We are serving here, everything. We are serving some English food, we are serving pasta, were are serving risotto, veal dishes, pork dishes, lamb dishes. It’s very continental, so there is a bit of everything for everyone. The review that we got was very unfortunate, but we as restaurateurs, we have to work on what we have been criticized for. We cannot say he was wrong, or that we were wrong. We just have to make it better and better, and just keep on going with that.
Before opening, owner Richard Caring was quoted as saying that it might be hard for the American clientele to get a table, initially. What did he mean by that? I have never heard that, and I don’t know the basis of that, he might have said that, but he didn’t mean it that way. What he meant probably was that he was very happy to be here in the states, and I can assure you that he’s really happy to be here, because he loves being in America, and this is his first—I don’t know if this is the right word— but baby. And he wants to make sure that his baby grows up in a certain way, and welcomes everybody. And I can assure you that he’s really, really happy to be here in America. What probably he tried to say was that it could take a while for the American customers to understand our concept, that definitely is what he tried to say, he never meant anything other than that.
What’s your most important gatekeeper tool? I think the most important tool is to get to know people, get to know them very well, try to understand their needs, and try to accommodate them at all times.
Does it seem like the restaurant has already been open for seven months? For me, personally, it doesn’t. It’s just like yesterday. I am having so much fun here, I am so happy to be here, I’m so happy to meet with brand new people, and welcome everybody. I am here most nights, I am here day and night five days a week.
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