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: Chloe Schildhause]
Tadich Grill in the FiDi is a San Francisco classic—one that has aged with utmost grace. Founded in 1849, it was a restaurant before California was a state and has survived gold rushes, earthquakes, Prohibition, and World Wars into the present day. Known as the “original cold day restaurant,” the current location of Tadich has been at 240 California Street since 1967 and has had its share of good stories. As diverse as the crowds have been over the years, many share the common bond of the long and anticipated wait for a table. Paul Lovallo, Tadich's front-of-house manager of 28 years, has been the self-described "traffic cop" keeping the power-lunch crowds and busy evenings under control on most nights. Lovallo sat down with Eater to talk about what’s it’s like now to get a table at the city's oldest legendary restaurant.
7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table? Usually 45 minutes to an hour. Sometimes, if it’s really busy, it can be over an hour. In the time I’ve been here I don’t think we’ve pushed two hours too many times.
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter? We definitely offer something to drink or an appetizer if we have space to serve it at the bar. The place is pretty small and the bar seats only 12 people and it’s pretty narrow against a wall. But people who are seated and waiting have the opportunity to oder an appetizer, or cocktail, soft drink, whatever they like.
What’s the longest wait you’ve ever seen? I think two hours is the longest wait I’ve seen.
Do customers attempt to make negotiations in exchange for a table? All the time. They offer to give me money, but when I was first hired by Steve Buich, who was the owner when I got here, one of the first things he told me was if you ever take money from someone to get them seated you loose your job [laughs]. That’s verboten here. I mean sometimes they want to tip me and I will take the money on the way out. But I never take money for a party to be seated. Never.
Anything other than money offered to get a table? Not in my experience.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Without mentioning names I have quite a few people I’ve gotten to know over the years. I try to take care of them as best I can and alleviate the wait. In some ways, I can do that. If they’re a party of two for example I can put them on a four-top. I never put a party of two in a booth, that’s the house rules. But I work mostly during lunch so I’ve gotten to known the financial district lunch crowd.
How does the lunch crowd differ from what you see at dinner? At dinner mostly you see conventioneers, tourists and people here for a sporting event. Some regulars. Our clientele is almost geriatric at this point. This is an old classic restaurant. We’ve attracted new, younger people who work in the financial district, but most of our clientele is getting on in their years.
Who are your VIPS, and how do you deal with them when there are no tables to give? Well, Tony Bennet has come in a couple of times. But they’re smart enough to call us and give us a heads up. We can slide him in, but this place is a mad house up front. One of the things that’s difficult to teach new people who work here is you have to be a traffic cop. That’s it. Everyone wants to come in and put their name, but you have to create order. So if a celebrity comes in and they get mobbed by people, it can be difficult for them. But if they’re smart enough to call us we try to alleviate the wait and take care of them.
What do you do when they are being mobbed? Sometimes I can’t do anything, I just try to create order and say, ‘Hey, take it easy here. Let them breathe.’ Usually what I’ll do if I know they’re coming, I will make a note on the list and as soon as I get a table I’ll let them in.
Who are some other famous clientele you have besides Tony Bennet? Over the years I’ve seen quite a few people that are famous, but not so much recently. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy was here recently. Willie Brown used to come in frequently. I haven’t seen him though in the past few months, but he always calls and lets us know he’s coming. Over the years I’ve seen Johnny Carson, Cary Grant, Jack Nicholson, Stevie Wonder. I’ve seen a lot of them over the years, but that’s not recent. That was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
What's the most outrageous request from a customer you've ever had to accommodate? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anything outrageous. The thing that’s difficult for me to deal with though is seating large parties and I have to get them to split up. The most we can sit together is maybe 15 people. But requests for large parties are difficult to handle.
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to get your job done? First thing is to keep your cool because you get a lot of pressure and a lot of people get irritated. One of the things that irritates people who come to Tadich Grill is, since we don’t take reservations, we don’t sit incomplete parties. Everybody has to be here.