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The Gatekeepers: Vanya Shekell, Delfina

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This is The Gatekeepers, where Eater roams the city to meet the fine men and women standing between you and some of your favorite dining destinations.
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Jennifer Yin, 6/27/08

As far as local restaurants go, Delfina is probably one of the few that needs no introduction, so we'll keep this short. Now a decade old, Craig and Annie Stoll's casual neighborhood joint has become a culinary poster child for not only the Mission, but San Francisco as a whole. And with a recent Beard award in tow, Delfina's popularity shan't be subsiding anytime soon. Reservations are made weeks in advance, walk-ins are aplenty throughout the night, and Ms. Vanya Shekell is the woman who keeps the door under control.

Vanya Shekell, Manager at Delfina: We have 70 seats in the restaurant, which includes five stools at our bar and eight at our dining counter. My personal favorites are the spots at the counter because you get to sit next to your date and can overlook the entire dining room, as well as watch the action in the kitchen via the large mirrors on the opposite wall. How did the Delfina staff celebrate the Beard news? We bought construction paper and made silly fake beards to wear. When Annie and Craig returned from New York, we greeted them with a Prosecco toast and a restaurant full of people wearing fake beards. Craig wore his medal. It was awesome. The following Monday we closed both Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina early and Annie and Craig threw a big party for the entire staff on the roof at Medjool. It was a great bonding experience.

8 PM on a Saturday night. What’s the wait for a table? While our tables are generally booked several weeks in advance, we do reserve the seats at the bar and counter for people without reservations. It’s impossible to predict how long the wait might be on any given night – you might get lucky and get a spot right away, or the wait could be an hour and a half or more. You’re more than welcome to call when you’re on your way and we’ll tell you what the wait is at that moment. If the wait is long when you arrive, we will take your name and number and give you a call when your spot is about to open up so you can go elsewhere and have a drink, or you can grab a glass of wine and wait in the bar or go sit on our benches outside and watch the action on the street.

Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? Nope. But you can use a few “tricks” to your advantage, like walking in right when we first open or as the evening is winding down. Ever been offered gifts or cash? Sure, but it won’t help you get a seat. I firmly believe that a guest with extra money to burn isn’t more deserving of a table than someone who has been saving their pennies to dine with us. That said, our hosts love to accept gifts of appreciation after you’ve been seated.

Tell us about your favorite customers? Any celebs been by recently? My favorite guests are those who are excited about our menu and wine list and are really into the unique type of service we provide, whether they’ve been coming to the restaurant for the last 10 years or are dining with us for the first time. I think Delfina is incredibly special, so I love being able to share that excitement with people. How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? Most of our regular guests know that it’s best to call ahead for a reservation if they don’t want to wait, but if they don’t, they are put on the list with the other walk-ins. We might give a regular guest preferential treatment when it comes to a favorite table or server, but we try to be as democratic as possible so we can continue to cultivate new friends as well as take care of the old ones.

What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve had to accommodate? We’re pretty lucky that we don’t get a lot of outrageous, demanding customers. I honestly can’t think of anything! ...that you couldn’t accommodate? I wouldn’t say that it’s outrageous, but people get really upset that we can’t accommodate large parties at Delfina. We get lots of requests for exceptions, and people come up with some pretty funny reasons why we should. They’re all good reasons that make me want to say yes, but unfortunately I can’t.

What’s your favorite dish at Delfina? Because ours is a daily-changing menu, I have a new favorite every night! My favorite menu staple is our grilled calamari with warm white bean salad; it’s a perfect combination of flavors and textures – smoky, briny, tangy, creamy, chewy and crunchy. What more could a girl want? Where are you eating when you're not at Delfina? On my days off, you’ll likely find me at cheap-eats-type places. Some of my favorites are Pagolac for Vietnamese, Papalote for Mexican and Lahore Karahi for Pakastani. I’m also a big fan of Firefly.

How was the Mission changed since you've worked there? I’ve been at Delfina on and off for almost eight years, so it’s changed quite a bit. 18th Street has definitely become less seedy and more accessible to everyone – even the Marina folk have no problems coming to this part of town now! Seriously, though?it’s pretty amazing that in the last month, two places on the same block have been given James Beard awards. When I first started working here, I would have laughed at that proposition. The neighborhood had definitely moved beyond “up and coming” and come into its own. It was a great neighborhood before, and it’s even better now.

What’s the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? The ability to say no gracefully and with sincerity. I have to apologize to people constantly, usually because we can’t accommodate them on the date and time they’d like, or because their party size is too large for our restaurant, or because we can’t seat them immediately upon arrival. I always try to have genuine compassion for these guests and to let them know that I wish I could give them what they want.

Delfina

3621 18th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 552-4055 Visit Website

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