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.[Photo: Jennifer Yin]
Cotogna is the critically beloved new pet project from Quince's Michael Tusk and friends. It's only been around since November, but that doesn't mean Hollywood types haven't caught onto the wonders Tusk can work with a wood oven. On any given night, hip hop moguls and FiDi hot shots might show up. We recently took some time with Cotogna General Manager Jonathan Wendorf, the brave soul who has to deal with them when they do.
It's 7:45 PM on a Saturday night. What’s the wait for a table? On a Saturday night at 7:45 there can be a wait for tables at Cotogna, but we have a special situation as we are two restaurants under one roof. If there is a wait on a Saturday night people can go next door to the Quince bar or lounge and enjoy a cocktail, glass of wine and an appetizer and when their seats open up we can call over and bring the guests and their drinks over to Cotogna. If you wanted a little less of a wait, we reserve a portion of the restaurant for walk-ins and usually have immediate seating available for Saturday brunch and Sunday Suppers.
With six months under your belt at Cotogna and so much media hype, you’ve surely been offered gifts or cash, right? What have people tried? People have offered cash, however, none has been accepted. One Friday night, a gentleman came in and said his name was on the wait list. I asked his name and he replied, “Franklin. You don’t see it? Franklin, Ben Franklin.” After a little chuckle we put his real name on the list and he was seated twenty minutes later.
Tell us about your favorite customers. There are a ton of great guests that come and check out Cotogna. It's fun to see the same people that come in on the weekdays for business meals come back with friends for dinner on the weekends. I used to work at Quince and I got to know a lot of the regulars there. When they come to Cotogna, it’s nice to catch up with them and share their excitement about the new spot.
So, how do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? We make tables appear. I have a saw and hammer at the host desk just for that reason. All kidding aside, it gets a little hairy, but we can juggle things around most of the time. I will say, however, that we had a starlet that was “legally blonde” that did have to wait 15 minutes for a table.
Any other good VIP stories to share? One night, we were getting ready to close the doors after a busy Saturday night when Russell Simmons came in to eat. It wasn’t just a table for two that he needed, but a ten top. He had his entourage with him.
What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve had to accommodate? Our guests are really respectful and haven’t asked for anything too outrageous. The "omit this" or "add this," request is what we usually see. We accommodate that as much as possible.
Anything you couldn’t accommodate? Well, we are just around the corner from Broadway but I’ll leave that alone?..
Awesome. Where are you eating when you're not at Cotogna? The days and nights are long at Cotogna, because we are open for continuous service. I usually have just enough time to grab a quick bite and drink at the local favorites before going home to bed. NOPA is my favorite after work spot, their staff is great and so is the food. On my days off, I love Aziza; Mourad has some great dishes and Farnoush has done amazing things with the cocktails.
People always tend to order the same things over and over. What’s the item on the current menu that more people should know about? Our pastas and items from the wood-fired grill are really popular, but I’m surprised that more people don’t order our three-course $24 Prix Fixe menu. It’s a great deal and the menu is always solid.
Cotogna has already received a lot of good press attention. Is there any one accolade or press hit you can associate with a bump in reservations or a different breed of clientele? It’s been really busy from the get go, but when Chef Tusk won the 2011 James Beard award for Best Chef Pacific, we saw a huge increase in reservation requests. We’re all so proud and it was fun to be part of the excitement.
At the end of the day, what’s the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? The one tool that is most important to me is my staff. I know it’s cliché to say that but I have one of the hardest working, knowledgeable and friendly staffs in town. From the reservationists in the office to the servers on the floor, the chefs and kitchen staff - they’re amazing. Always making me and our guests smile, without them it would just be work.
· All Previous Cotogna Coverage [~ ESF ~]