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.
In January, Bobby Werhane opened his casual neighborhood Italian joint Spasso in the old Alfama space on Hudson St. The restaurant features Lupa and Convivio vet Craig Wallen in the kitchen, 17 tables and a chef's counter in the back, and a big bar up front stocked with some very fine bottles of Italian wine. According to the early responders, the ricotta strascinari is the thing to get. We recently chatted with manager Jennifer Freedman about how to score a table at Spasso on a busy night.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? Jennifer Freedman, Manager: Well, we don't really reserve tables for walk-ins and this is a small restaurant, so if we don't have a table, we don't have a table. However, we do have our dining bar which we reserve for walk-ins, and normally the wait for that is 20-25 minutes.
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter? How about cash or gifts to speed things along? I don't know — maybe I'm doing something wrong but I've never been offered that kind of thing. No, I don't really think that happens at restaurants as much as people think that it does, especially at more casual restaurants like this. And as a manager, I can't really technically accept gifts or anything — maybe an adorable picture of a kitten or something. We try to get everyone seated as fast as possible.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Well, we don't really have "VIPs" here, but we do treat the neighborhood regulars like VIPs. The people in the neighborhood are the ones that keep us in business in the long run, so we do our best to accommodate them even if we don't have a table, and we set them up at the dining bar as soon as possible. It's all about balance. We want to be a neighborhood restaurant, but we also want to do something a little bit exciting so that we're bringing in people from outside the neighborhood too. Any Celebrities? I don't watch that much TV, but occasionally I'll see someone from Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock, and I'll get really excited.
Have you spotted any critics? We've seen a couple of critics come in. We're definitely in the critics stage right now.
What's the strangest request from a customer that you've accommodated? For the most part everything's been pretty normal, but there are little things. We don't have a gelato fridge, although that is coming for the summertime, but in the past people have been like "Oh, I'd really like some ice cream," so we do what we can — we go and buy ice cream for them at the store. Not high-end ice cream or anything, but we like to surprise people a little bit if we can.
...that you couldn't accommodate? Nothing too crazy, but we have this pig, our Spasso mascot. It's this shiny blue pig, limited edition, they only make 350 of them a year, and after a couple glasses of wine, people are tempted to play around with this pig and take him home. A couple of people have made attempts to steal him, and one table actually got away with it. It was late at night and no one was looking, and they kind of reached over the partition and stole the pig, and he went on an adventure for a couple of days. Did you get him back? They brought him back. They were people we knew, they were regulars, friends of the restaurant. And they took care of him, but you know, now he's seen the outdoors and now he's tempted to go back.
What's your most important gatekeeper tool? I think the most important thing is really being able to understand what the guest wants. You can tell them a variety of things, but all they want to hear is "We have your table ready, please be seated." There's no amount of "It'll be a few more minutes" that will make people happy, and so it's just a matter of trying to make that happen as fast as possible. And I don't know if it requires any special skills to do that. It just requires a bit of empathy, to feel like what you would feel like at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night, in your heels, squished up against the bar. And pens — pens are essential. We're always running out of pens. I don't know what happens, but there's like a black hole, or an abyss in the restaurant where pens keep disappearing. That's another bribery tactic, actually — if you bring me a nice ballpoint pen, we'll see what we can do.
When you're not at Spasso, where are you eating? Usually a bunch of us go over to Corner Bistro after work. I really appreciate a good Bistro Burger.
What's the best thing on the menu? Hands down, our citrus bomboloni. I eat way too many of them on a nightly basis. Runner up is our ricotta strascinari, which is the best pasta I've ever had. We have a guy downstairs who makes pasta 40 hours a week, from scratch. He's let me make a couple and they came out really terrible.
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