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Brooklyn Diner's Alexis Reyes on Celebs, Nuns and Hot Dogs

[Krieger, 08/03/10]

The Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street attracts an eclectic mix of tourists, businessmen, burger enthusiasts, and celebs, and Alexis Reyes is a big part of the reason why they keep coming back. For the last fifteen years, he’s been in charge of the front of the house operations, conducting traffic through the busy breakfast and lunch rushes, and paying attention to each customer in a casual but personal way that makes them feel like regulars, even if they are only in New York a few days out of every year. We recently sat down with Alexis in his favorite seat in the house — a booth in the middle of the dining room — to chat about what it’s like getting a table there during a busy service, where the famous people like to sit, and just who, exactly, orders the diner's fifteen inch hot dog.

Alexis Reyes, General Manager: The restaurant has been open for the last 15 years, and I’ve been with it for 16 and a half — I opened it. I’ve known the owner for about 30 years, I worked for him at Fiorello's, I worked for him at different places, I was a dishwasher, I was a busboy, I was a waiter, I became a host. I’ve been here through all of it, different incarnations.

What is the busiest time of day at Brooklyn Diner? I mean we have a very strong power breakfast. It’s famous. It doesn’t last long — Monday through Friday we open at seven, Saturday and Sundays, at eight. So, that’s not a whole lot of time, but a whole lot goes on in those few hours. I would say that breakfast and lunch is mostly businessmen and tourists. But our tourist is not just a tourist. As a matter of fact, they’re regulars. These are people, for example, who belong to theater clubs in England, and they come two or three times a year. These people are celebrities to us.

It's 8 PM on Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? It depends on the size of the party — groups of two move faster than larger parties. It’s probably just going to be about 20 minutes, because if it’s Saturday night at 8 o’clock, the theater is in.

What’s the wait like during a busy breakfast? Right until about 9 AM a group of two could have a 20 to 30 minute wait. A party of more than two could actually have a 30 to 40 minute wait — and they wait. And they’re very happy to wait. On a Saturday or Sunday brunch when it’s raining, just go outside and count the umbrellas out there. The first time it happened, I was like “ Wow, this is Wimbledon out here.”

Is there anything you can do to make your wait any shorter? Any cash or gifts to speed things along? No, but you know what we do? We go out there with a tray of lemonade when it's hot, or hot chocolate in the winter and our guests don’t mind waiting, and they don’t have to do much more than that. My New Yorkers know exactly when to come. It’s terrible, I’ve given them "Guest 101," about what to do and when to come. The customer 101 for breakfast is very much before 11:15, and between 8 and 10:30. Even if there’s a line out the door and it’s crazy, you can get in here.

So who are your favorite customers? You know what? Right now, I don’t have any? they’re all like family to me. I come from a big family. My poor wife — my mother’s side of the family just had a reunion, and everyone showed up, so there were like 800 people there. So, I always feel like I’m feeding all of them. I think the customers that come in here love coming in because I think they feel safe and protected here. And they know that I’m going to keep them from being seen — nobody really sees them until they leave. I mean, I had a woman say “If that man was younger, he’d be Tony Bennet,” and I said “You’re right, it could be Tony Bennett.” But it was Tony Bennett! Of course it’s Tony Bennett! Like, who else is it going to be?

I hear this is one of Adam Sandler’s favorite restaurants. Oh he’s great, and his mom. He comes and he brings his business friends, with his mom, they come in here. He’s very warm, and he’s got the kids now, but he doesn’t come in so much with the kids, he comes in by himself. We have people like, of course, Jerry Seinfeld. He comes for breakfast almost every single day. He’s a gentleman. He’s very approachable. My whole thing is that anybody who’s in the room is in here to eat, and nobody will walk over to you if you’re here to eat. It’s a restaurant, it’s a diner.

Do you have a favorite seat in the house? Where we’re sitting, because you can see everything. This is actually Jerry Seinfeld’s table. But everyone else sits here too, like if Paul McCartney comes in, he sits with me here. And he has a very limited menu, because he’s vegetarian. Not that we don’t do vegetarian, but for a little while, he was vegan. And he still came in? Well, you know what? He was born on June 18th and I was born on June 13th, and we got into a conversation about that one time, and now he kind of shows up around that time of year. He sang "Happy Birthday" to me, you know. Three years ago? he was in the front of the restaurant, it was packed, I sat him over in the back, and he picked up the salt and pepper shakers and sang "Happy Birthday" to me. I still have the Polaroids! But, so, we would just talk about life and he would eat cereal. And he’d say like, “I’m still eating pork on Christmas.” How did we have those kinds of conversations? Because of our birthdays, we’re connected. He came last year, but it was the first time that I took a day off on my birthday. It was so funny, because when I got back the manager said,“Paul McCartney came in, he said it was your birthday.” And I was so surprised! You create these relationships that are kind of based on the restaurant, and the feeling about Brooklyn Diner.

Why do you think people stay so connected to the restaurant? To say the least, the food experience is really great. People will say, "My grandmother made the kugel just like that." But in reality? I’ll say, "Your grandmother probably couldn’t afford the ingredients that are really going into that Kugel." And it is better? the way we remember the things we love is always better than anything that could have ever been. So, it’s more than the food, it’s the feeling that people come with, and the way that they are created, amidst the madness of the city. There are people that can really appreciate that.

What’s the strangest request that you’ve accommodated? None of the requests that people give me are strange, but sometimes people will hear “diner” and think “deli”? So they start creating their own thing? And they say, “We want a Chinese chicken salad, no chicken, no this, no that." And I say, “Do you realize that the only thing that’s left is the cabbage?” And they say, “Well, I’ll take that with a side of turkey,” and I’ll say “There’s no turkey on this menu! We’re not a deli!” And people enjoy that kind of answer, if you gave them some time to listen to it, and you listen to them.

Are there any requests that you could not accommodate? I won’t send a delivery person to the East Side during a blackout. And people do call. Oh, you know what? Thanksgiving. All the streets are closed, so we don’t deliver because we can’t get through, but we will let people pick up. And people will say, “Why can’t you get through?" And I’ll say, “It’s Thanksgiving! All the streets are blocked for the parade!” I mean, if I don’t get in at a certain time without my ID, they won’t let me cross 57th street.

What do you do when a VIP walks in and you don’t have a table for them? They do have to wait. Normally, their assistants call me and let me know they’re coming. If I don’t get that call, and many times I don’t get that call, I still make sure they’re okay, because I feel for them. I mean I know that they work hard.... nobody gave them anything, and the media can be tough. So, I don’t want them to go through any embarrassment, so there are areas where I have them wait where they’re not so visible. The two people that I’ve found who are totally fearless about waiting anywhere are Goldie Hawn and Paul McCartney. One time, there was a crowd of people inside and tons of people outside, and I said to Goldie that she could wait over by the kitchen. She said, “That’s fine!” I was so impressed with her! She was more worried about me. It was so funny, and she was like “I’m going to be okay.” They know, this is what they do.

What’s your most important gatekeeper tool? This, [points to his eyes] and this [points to his mouth]. I have to disarm everybody immediately, for whatever reason you come in here, whatever is going on in your life — you're coming here to settle your divorce, to get your kids gets back in school and out of rehab — you’re coming in with all of that. You can let all those things go right now, it's just me and you. We can look at some Polaroids, and have some silly conversations, and you’re safe here. This is a safe zone. I never forgot, she wasn’t one of my regulars, but I remember when she was coming in here when she was dating her husband — Christy Turlington? She dated two other guys, and then she married her husband, and stopped coming in, but she saved my life once. I was in the front, and I should have had six waiters, but I had two, I should have had four busboys, but I had two. It was one of those situations — curtain’s open. And it was 1 o’clock, somehow things weren’t working with some of my twos, and there were some businessmen waiting up front. And she got up, she’d paid her bill, and she stopped by the front, and I didn’t even know that she knew my name, because I wasn’t as close with her as I am with other people. She said “Thank you for everything, you’re so sweet,” and she kissed me on my cheek. And those six men, they would have sat in the worst table in the house after that. She knew that I was about to get like, eaten alive, and after that those guys didn’t care about the wait.

So, if someone’s never been to Brooklyn Diner before, what should they order? Oh, the hot dog is like huge, okay — 15 inches. When the restaurant first opened, we had nothing but people photographing us — I know I’m all over Japan with pictures of that hot dog. People come in asking me to autograph that picture, and I can’t believe that anyone would have a picture of me holding a hot dog! One time there were these nuns that came in, and they were nuns in habits, which is unusual, because you don’t see that very often. They brought the hot dogs over to the table — and the silence that was at that table! I said to the server, “but they didn’t send it back.” You know, because it’s such a phallic symbol! Just going through the dining room, you know what I mean? And that’s something that you have to have at Brooklyn Diner.

Brooklyn Diner

212 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019 (212) 977-1957 Visit Website

The Brooklyn Diner

212 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019-3200