This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of New York's hottest tables.
[David Massoni and Calli Genzale, Krieger, 05/09/12]
Dale Talde's recent addition to Park Slope, Talde, is currently one of the toughest restaurants to secure a table at in Brooklyn. If you walk in here on a busy weekend night, you might face a two hour wait. The big draw here is the menu of Asian-American comfort food from chef Talde, and the dining room also has a fun, loose vibe. Eater recently chatted with general manager Calli Genzale, and proprietor David Massoni about what it's like getting a table there on a busy night.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait for two? Calli Genzale, general manager: About one and a half to two hours.
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter? Calli: I've had people try to slip me money. I think that a lot of times they assume that I am a hostess, and that I am easily bribed. So I try to make a little joke with them about it, like, “I’m easy but I’m not cheap!” David Massoni, proprietor: It’s so democratic. There is nothing you can really do. One thing that does work is when people put their names down on the list on their way home from the subway. They find out that it’s an hour wait, go home, change, drop off their bags, come down and have a drink, and then they find that their wait time is that much shorter. That’s one of the things we have seen our customers do as a way around the wait. We're totally psyched that these people who live in the neighborhood have figured out a way to deal with the popularity of the restaurant.
Why not take reservations then? Calli: We wanted it to be a place where people from the neighborhood could walk in and get a table just as easily as someone who is coming from Manhattan wanting to dine with us. Dave: More than anything, I've found that Brooklyn diners don't make a plan, because they live in a neighborhood where they don't have to. The last thing they want to do is think ahead about where they are going to eat. So in some respects, we feel like we have made it harder on the destination diner, not because we want to, but because we want the neighborhood to feel like they own this restaurant first.
Are there a lot of regulars? Dave: Tons. The list literally goes on and on. Because it is a small neighborhood, we have to be careful too. I was in a bodega behind a woman who was taking the longest time paying––sorting her change, couldn't find this couldn't find that––and I literally was about to be one of those rude guys who is like, “C’mooooon lady!” I held back and didn't. Then she turned around and went, “Oh hey! We had the best dinner in the restaurant last night!” And I'm thinking, “Man, I’m glad I didn't say anything.”
What's the strangest request that you've been asked to accommodate? Dave: Not so much strange, but I definitely say that for Calli and me, the thing that makes us laugh the most in our job is the amount of people who come in thinking that they know what works best. You want to say to them, “I work here every night, I think I have a better sense of what’s going to work. Whether those tables are going to fit together or not.” Calli: Yes, when someone is like, “Can we just push these two tables together?” That’s a pretty standard request, and you have to say, “I'm sorry, unfortunately, it’s just not going to work in the space.” And still they ask, “Are you sure, because I feel like if you did this and this...” I just want to say, “I’ve tried it, it doesn't work." If I could fit six people at that table then I would. I’m not telling people no because I don't want them to eat here. I really want them to eat here. I just can't fit four adults, two children, a highchair, a stroller... Dave: And your dog. I think sometimes, you just have to get people to see the silliness of the requests.
Who are your VIPs here? Dave: I don't think we see anyone as VIPs in the restaurant other than family members of our staff. There is a certain brotherhood and sisterhood that we are all in: kitchen, front of the house, bartenders, wine people, those of us who work in this blue collar industry together. As highfalutin as it can get in these cities like New York and London, it is still a blue collar job that we have all chosen to do. Anytime we can take care of someone that is in the restaurant industry, we go out of our way. It doesn't make their wait time for a table any shorter, but once we get them into a seat, there is a certain amount of extra care that comes.
Who are the most exciting celebrities that have come in? Calli: I know that Dale would cringe if he knew that I was categorizing cheftestants as celebrities, but I think that it’s really fun when Top Chef competitors come into the restaurant. We've had a couple of nights where it seemed like the perfect Top Chef storm. Once Richard Blais, Fabio Viviani, Carla Hall, and Angelo Sosa, all came in. There was another night when all of the current season, including the winner, Paul [Qui], came to eat. Also once, when I was at the host stand, I got a phone call. It was really loud in here, so I couldn't really hear what the woman said. I just heard, “This is ____, what’s the wait like for two?” So I responded, “Well right now we’re like an hour and a half wait." Then I hear her pause and go, “Is Dale there???” And I'm thinking, "Who is this?" So I ask again, and she goes “PADMA. P-A-D...” Dave: Padma Lakshmi walking in and sitting down at the table next to you is just the icing on the cake.
How would you say that this is different than places you’ve worked previously? Calli: For me it's a really awesome experience when I know a guest has waited over an hour, and when they are leaving, I get to ask them, “How did you enjoy everything?” Clearly in a food high, they just kind of blur past me and are like, “Oh my God, it was amazing.” I also love to see when diners give the people who are still waiting for a table this kind of high five. They are telling their comrades, “It’s worth the wait. It’s worth it."
What would you say are the more difficult aspects of working in this restaurant? Dave: I would say sometimes one of the hardest parts is talking people out of waiting. When it really is probably going to be an hour to an hour and a half, then maybe tonight is not the right night. Sometimes you get a weird reaction from that, like “Are you telling me to go eat somewhere else?” We’re not telling anyone to do anything when we quote a wait time. Sometimes if a customer is upset about the wait, it just makes for a better situation for everybody to kind of coax them into the idea of not doing so.
How do people react? Dave: The funniest reaction I’ve gotten to a long wait, I mean mind-blowingly funny, is not a customer being upset about it, but having no problem at all when I quoted two hours on a Saturday at eight o'clock. When he said to put his name down, I asked, "Are you sure sir, I mean when I am telling you two hours there's a good possibility that it’s going to be more." He was fine, and so I wrote down his name. He takes one step towards the bar, turns around, and comes back to me. He asks, “What kind of food is it that you serve here?” I literally didn't think he was serious. I said, “You have no idea what kind of food we serve, and you are willing to wait possibly more than two hours?” My only guess could be that he saw how popular the restaurant was and saw how many people were here. Calli: That’s what’s different about a Saturday night too, that’s when we have more people coming in from New Jersey, or from Manhattan, or from Long Island, because they have read about the restaurant or heard about it. Those are the people who are going to hang out and wait for an hour and a half at the bar no matter what, because they trekked here for it. They’re going to have a few cocktails and make a night of it. Dave: And sometimes I get scared about that hour and a half because I know how much people can drink while they’re waiting.
Do people wind up being wasted before they get to their table? Calli: Well sometimes. I mean, everybody is excited when we tell them we have a table ready for them, but it's usually a red flag when they are like, “WOOOHOOO! [waving arms in the air]. Then we go, “Oh boy, send ‘em some more dumplings. On the house...”
Are you expecting a New York Times review, and when do you think it will happen? Dave: We have no idea, we don’t even know if they’ll want to review us. I don't know how happy they’ll be about having to wait for a table. Calli: Maybe we could give them a booth. Who’s not into a good booth? It’s like the best present I can give to someone if I have one available for them. Everybody loves a good booth, it's the Ground Round in all of us.