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.
If you go to Lincoln, chef Jonathan Benno's ambitious new fine-dining restaurant at Lincoln Center, odds are Maitre d' Joseph Scala will be the one greeting you at the door. He worked with Benno at Per Se, and at Bar Boulud just across the street, and he knows every single inch of the sprawling $20 million dining room like the back of his hand. Whether you just want a Negroni at the bar, or a full blown five-course tasting menu, he'll find you a seat.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? Saturday night it's usually fully reserved, but the bar is another option — it's first come, first serve. We have a counter there that has seven seats. Right at 8 o'clock guests leave to go to the various performances at Lincoln Center, so it offers up some free spots at the bar. So, about 20 or 30 minutes.
What about at lunch? What's the wait at noon? We would love to take you.
Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? How about gifts or cash to speed things along? Certainly not. It's not fair to the guests that have reservations, however we try to accommodate as much as we can.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Any celebs recently? Well, we have a certain amount of regular guests that often come to the opera, who we always love. We also love the ones that we don't know at all. Lincoln Center being a cultural hub, you get people from all around the world. It could be celebrities, it could be musicians, it could be people that live in the neighborhood — a little bit of everything.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? Saying "no" is a last resort, but we always do our best to make accommodations, and usually something always works out.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you could accommodate? This one couple liked the restaurant so much, but they couldn't decide which dining room they wanted to dine in. So, they had one course in each different location. I think they liked the salone the best, because they could see the chef and the reflection pool — that was dessert. ...that you couldn't accommodate? We have this one lady who's a regular guest — she's so sweet — but she wanted to read an epically long poem to the chef during the middle of service. I convinced her that I'd read it to him after service. We accommodated her in other ways.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? I would say having genuinely good intentions. You can get away with murder.
What's your ideal meal at Lincoln? I would try and come at an hour where you can watch the sun set. It really changes the perspective of Lincoln Center. You enjoy the sunlight, you can see the people walking around, and then after the sun sets, all the people going to the various performances look like little black silhouettes walking into the theater — it's quite striking. And then, I'd probably have the tasting menu. It's a nice way to not have to choose anything, and get to experience the full gamut.
When you're not at Lincoln, where are you eating? I'm fairly low-key, so I usually dine at home. I like to cook myself, or sometimes I go to a little cafe and have a grilled cheese.
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