This is The Gatekeepers, wherein Eater roams the city to meet the fine men and women standing between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Jennifer Yin, 1/31/08
Even before the trio of shiny stars arrived via The Bauer, Laiola was the new hotshot of the Marina. Of course, his glowing review only added to the masses flocking to the Spanish-Californian restaurant headlined by Chef Mark Denham. For its first several months, Laiola adhered to the no-reservations trend, making for quite the frenzy on Chestnut Street. Since then, they've begun taking reservations, but don't think for a second that the new policy makes Isaac Smith's job any easier.
Isaac "Ike" Gabriel Smith, General Manager/Resident Bohemian of Laiola: [There are] 50 seats. What are your favorites? Table 12 for a date, table 26 for a larger group. Of course that won't mean much to you and unfortunately I can't divulge the table numbers, they are a secret only the staff can know. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to say, "Did you see the _____ on table 26?", and have it be anonymous. OK ... I'll divulge: table 12 is the side table in the little nook as you enter the restaurant- a perfect spot to sit next to your date on the two corner seats of the table, easy to converse but you both get to watch the goings on in the dining room. Table 26 is the big, over-stuffed corner banquette in the back, great view of the kitchen and down along the copper counter, lots of elbow room.
8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? The standard party line is: "We maintain about 60% of our seats for walk-in customers", and it really is hard to say- I'd guess an average would be 15 minutes for the counter, half hour for a table. But I've sat parties of six instantly at 8 on a busy night and I’ve quoted over an hour to a deuce, the rhythm of the house can be very different from night to night. I keep the house phone on me so people can call and get on the waitlist when they're on their way. Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? Please and thank you. ...How about gifts or cash to speed things along? Sympathy and thankfulness go a long way. We are all working very hard to make our customers love us, I want you to sit down and have an amazing meal as much as you do. If you understand this then it helps me to be honest about what's happening in the dining room and it makes me more comfortable asking other diners if they can scoot over or even move to another table if it helps me build a bigger table for you.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Any celebs been by recently? I have a huge crush on everyone that walks in the door, if you're excited to see what were up to and if you "get it" and understand how much effort goes into sourcing local, organic, small farm produced food and the craftsmanship required to repeatedly produce a dish over and over with the same degree of attention to detail, if you're excited about trying new varietals and discovering little known gems from the obscure wine regions of Spain, then I'm excited to be a part of it. We have a lot of regulars, people that have been dining here every week, since way before we became a media darling- they're my favorites. We also get a lot of restaurant people in, our Chef is a real "cooks cook" and we get quite a few celebrity chefs in because of Mark [Denham]'s dedication and skill. Chef Hubert Keller lives in the neighborhood and we're always excited and honored to have him visit. Hmm, my personal favorite? I guess I do have one favorite customer that always makes me melt when she walks in the door, but that's a secret.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? I try to get them a little buzzed and chat 'em up, that way they don't notice the table I'll have for them "in a moment" has actually been about 45 minutes worth of moments. No, just joking. We don't have VIPs, it's what I love about SF- we care about integrity not celebrity, if you're cool I'll do everything in my power to make your evening perfect. ...the owner's friends? The owners of Laiola are like family to me, so that naturally extends to their friends. Most of the people that really love us have my personal cell phone number, that includes everyone from the owner's friends, to our investors, to Marty, the old guy that always comes in alone to see if the sardines are back on, then proceeds to eat half the menu.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer you've had to accommodate? Body shots of our house-made Meyer Lemon Limoncello, we keep it in the freezer and it's pretty chilly to the touch. ...that you couldn't accommodate? A private tour of the wine cellar, with "benefits." What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? A lot of love. (A shot of Fernet doesn't hurt either)