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.
[Left to right: Kaysilyn Lawson, General Manager; Dominique Armorer, Host; Abie Jammeh, Host. Photo: Krieger, 08/22/11]
Miss Lily's is the smokin' hot new Jamaican bar and restaurant from Paul Salmon, Binn and Genc Jakupi, and Serge Becker. Salmon is also the proprietor of The Rockhouse, a boutique hotel in Negril that is very popular with vacationing New Yorkers. He's brought a lot of that island vibe to this new project: Miss Lily's features two groovy dining rooms, a bangin' soundtrack, beautiful staff, beautiful clientele, and some serious Jamaican food from chef Bradford Thompson. If you show up at 8 PM on a Saturday night, Dominique Armorer, Kaysilyn Lawson, and Abie Jammeh will help you find a table and make sure that you have a good time, even if there is a wait.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? Dominique Armorer, Host: An hour, sometimes more depending on how busy we are. Kaysilyn Lawson, General Manager: We do get a lot of walk-ins, and they all get seated eventually. Everyone's pretty open to the wait.
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter? KL: The best thing you can do is enjoy your cocktail at the bar. It's funny, because people come in and most times they end up eating at the bar. They come in, they start drinking, they interact with the bartenders and the servers, and before you know it, it really does not seem like that long of a wait.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Abie Jammeh, Host: We accommodate everyone. Even if it's your first night, it will be like we've known you forever. We're warm, we have happy faces, so it's very easy to interact with everyone. KL: We do have a lot of regulars, people who come in three or four nights a week. DA: We have a customer who I'm convinced just needs a key, because he's here every day. He's either at the bar or at one of the yellow tables, perched. And I'm like "Hi, working again here today?" This is his office. He has lunch and dinner, or he just comes in to say hello and have a drink.
Do you get a lot of celebrities? KL: We get our fair share.
How do you deal with a VIP when there are no tables left to give? KL: We're pretty lucky for the most part, because they will call ahead. Even if it is a 15 minute window, they'll let us know. So, the communication with our VIPs has been good enough that they don't have to show up and wait, but they also show up and don't mind waiting at the bar. They come in, they stand at the bar, and it's no big deal. DA: And we have a really good staff, so we put our heads together and make it happen. KL: And they know all the staff. That's one of the greatest things about it. Even the first time guests come in and they'll learn the names of everyone on the staff. It's like coming home.
Do you get a lot of people from The Rockhouse? KL: We do get a lot of people from The Rockhouse, actually. They had their wedding there, or they went to a wedding there, or they just went on vacation, or they're going soon. DA: Every time they are leaving and they see the photo of The Rockhouse by the door, they say, "Oh my god! I've been there."
You have two very different dining rooms. Do customers play favorites? DA: Sometimes people walk in and say, "Hi, I want to sit in the back." KL: I think what they don't realize is that both rooms have their own character and they both offer something different and great. The back is mostly for larger parties and I think that's just a general misconception, that the back is some exclusive room — it's not. It's just that if you're a larger party, you will no doubt be back there because we can't accommodate you in the front. And that's really just how we work it. A lot of people walk in thinking, "Oh, I want to sit in the back room, what do I have to do?" And it's like, you really don't have to do anything but get seven friends together. DA: A lot of people think the back room is a party room, and they're like, "The back is supposed to be cooler, right?" And I say, "Well, personally for me, the front is a party room and the back is a party room, because I'm dancing everywhere and we're bouncing around throughout, so it's all the same for us."
What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you've accommodated? KL: You know what's a good one? There's a woman who comes in maybe three or four times a week, and we have festivals on the menu — they're like fried dumplings with cornmeal and sugar inside them. I grew up eating them — I'm from Montego Bay, born and raised — and they're really good, almost like crack. Really addictive. So, this girl comes in and says, "Oh, I really love these festivals, but I've put on a few pounds. Do you think you can bake them?" And we all look at each other like,"Oh?okay?" So, we go to the kitchen, and the kitchen is all Jamaican and they're like, "Oh?okay?" So, we put them in the oven, and baked them as she requested, and she fell in love with them. They're actually pretty good that way, but it's like baking a donut — it's not the same. But we did it and whenever she comes in, we'll give her the baked festivals.
Any requests that you couldn't accommodate? KL: So far, not really. Like Dominique said, we always put our heads together and somehow we make it happen. DA: The only thing is maybe if there's a large party that walks in and it's a Friday or a Saturday night and we're at capacity, that's something that maybe we can't accommodate. Being honest and being realistic, it's going to be a long wait especially for a larger party. KL: We had 16 people show up one time at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night, and of course we didn't have room for them, but they insisted that they had to come. They were leaving the country the next morning, and they waited about two and a half hours. They went elsewhere and came back, and we were finally able to seat them at around 11 o'clock. They had a great time. So, somehow in the end, if they are willing to wait we always accommodate them.
What's the best thing on the menu? AJ: My favorite is the jerk chicken — it's very rich and it has a great mango sauce. KL: My favorite is definitely the Hellshire fried fish, which is a fried whole snapper, head-on. It's huge but it's so flavorful and it comes with an escoveitch sauce, which is pickled vegetables, carrots, and onions. And of course it comes with festivals. DA: Well, I'm greedy, so I have more than one. So we start with the appetizers: the cod fish fritters and my salad with the organic greens — got to get a little healthy inside there. Then I love the jerk chicken, the steamed fish, and the lobster.
So, do people that know Jamaican cuisine like the food here? DA: We've had Jamaicans come in, and they're like, "Okay, we can work with this." KL: They all walk in with low expectations, and then they're like, "Holy crap." And then you'll see them the next night, and you'll see them for lunch, and you'll see them for brunch.
What's your most important gatekeepers tool? KL: I'd say a smile. Keep that smile going. And it's tough sometimes, but a smile works when it's a great customer, and a smile works when it's a bad customer. DA: And keeping the energy up as well. We work here, but we have fun doing it. The customers like it because they become part of it as well. I had a customer sitting down having dinner, and a song came on and he started dancing with us. He forgot his food! That's what we try to create and embrace. We try to be entertaining and fun-loving, and include you in the experience.
When you're not at Miss Lily's, where are you eating? DA: It's sad, but I come here on my days off. This is like home. AJ: Yeah, sometimes I stay home and cook, but I either cook or eat here. KL: All our staff eats here every day. They come early and have a full-on meal even if they are not working. But I will say one of the only other places I really enjoy is The Dutch. Their late night menu is amazing. I'll leave here around 1 o'clock, and I'll run over and get my fried chicken.