This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of San Francisco's hottest tables.
Since Lana Porcello and David Muller opened Outerlands in 2009, people have been making the trek out to Ocean Beach for chef Brett Cooper's much-talked-about grilled cheese on homemade bread, Dutch pancakes, and eggs in jail. Early on, the Outer Sunset restaurant quickly received attention from The New York Times and Food & Wine, among other outlets, and is a regular player in Michael Bauer's Top 100. All this goodness in a tiny space with no reservations taken and few other options in the neighborhood equals one thing: lines. (Lines so bad that Bauer wrote a whole piece complaining about them.) While the restaurant is planning an expansion later this year that will double its size, for now, there are only a handful of tables. Eater recently met with front-of-house manager Laura Michetti, who guides us on the best way to score a seat, and how to not freak out when the restaurant runs out of bread.
Dave [Muller] briefly mentioned that you have a unique system for waits. Can you explain why it's unique? Primarily because we don't take reservations. We just can't when we only have eight tables. We already have to turn people away sometimes, and we also don't have a standard host. A lot of the servers will double as hosts, and whoever volunteers is running the list on any given day. At night it's a little more structured, and we do have designated hosts. But we still don't have one main person who is always going to be at the door, and I think that's what's mainly different then most places.
When is it busiest? It's a strong contender between Sunday brunch and Saturday night. Generally speaking, [Sunday] is going to be the most volume. On a Saturday night, we'll have a rivaling amount of business, but it's different. People will come in, and if the wait is too long, they'll leave, where at brunch, people are more likely to just stick it out and stay the whole time. It makes for a really huge day.
What's the wait on weekends? On Saturdays I'd say an hour tops for two, and a hour and half or more for bigger parties. Again, the whole size thing makes a big difference.
What's the longest wait you've seen? We've seen two-hour waits on Sunday, definitely. But most of those people are fully prepared. They go to Trouble and get a cup of coffee, or go have a walk on the beach if the weather is nice. It's not like people sort of hanging out upset that they're waiting. They plan for it. They come by, get their name on the list and then go do their Sunday, and then come back here for brunch after a while. That seems to be the most efficient way to go about it.
Any other suggestions for what people can do to make their wait shorter? I would say, other than just enjoying the actual wait, coming during the week is a huge thing. Obviously, we don't offer brunch on weekdays, but if you come here on a Wednesday night compared to a Friday night, it will be a significantly shorter wait, no matter what. Another thing is being flexible. A lot of people shun [our] outdoor seating, but it's really lovely out there. There are heaters. It's quiet. It has its own sort of romance to it, especially at night. If you're only willing to sit inside, it will significantly prolong the wait.
Has anyone ever tried to make negotiations for a table? The one thing we do get a lot of is people trying to seat incomplete parties. There will be a party of seven, and five of them are here. They will come up with every excuse as to why they should be seated right away, which just prolongs everyone. Our hosts have been offered cash before, but they never take it. People will do what they can. I've had people come in the morning to try to sign up for the dinnertime list, to try to get here really, really early. So there's all sorts of interesting and strange things that go on to try to get people in here.
What's the earliest you can get here to sign up for dinner? We put the list out about an hour before service, so that's 4:30 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 5 pm on the other days. It's really great for people who live in the neighborhood. They can just come in and scribble their name and come back when we open. As long as you're one of the first handful of people on the list, you'll be seated immediately. Then you kind of control your wait time.
Do you have favorite customers? Of course. We have people who have been coming here since it opened, just local neighborhood people who come here and who love our grilled cheese. People who work in the business, business owners in the neighborhood, our community. That's a huge part of it. Those are our favorites. They're the ones who know us the best and have seen us grow and change, but still like it and appreciate it and want to continue to see it thrive and expand.
Do you do anything special for these customers? As far as getting tables go, there's nothing else, they have to wait. But a lot of times they're locals or industry people, so they know and they come early and put their name on the list. They're more prepared for the wait, I think, than anyone else. It's always ironic how that works out. Sometimes we get industry VIPs and chefs, or other restaurateurs, and we may send out a dessert or something like that. But as far as the list, everyone has to wait [laughs].
Who are some of your VIPS? The chefs and owners have a lot of friends. The owners of Tartine. Laurence [Jossel] from Nopa. Any one of the chefs that Brett Cooper's friends with, or Dave [Muller] and Lana [Porcello's] friends. A lot of people in the hospitality industry in San Francisco love our restaurant. We get a lot of hospitality people here, so it's fun to know that this is where they choose to come.
What's the most outrageous request you've received from a customer? We don't necessarily get outrageous requests or anything. We are what we are. We're a small restaurant, we have particular food. We don't really get weird requests in that sense, but we do get some outrageous behavior, particularly in relation to our bread. There have been upset guests and curse words about us not having a loaf to spare. Someone will come in and ask to buy a loaf of bread, and some days we have them, some days we don't. We have gotten so much anger and fury from guests about not having it. Which is a good thing. It means they want it.
What are some of your favorite things to eat here? I love everything. The menu changes somewhat frequently, and once I really start to fall in love with something, something else comes along and takes its place. Right now, at dinner, the trout is amazing, and the slow-cooked farm egg. I love our bread. Always. We all eat way too much of our bread and homemade butter. But, again, there are worse things to complain about. For lunch, I love our grilled cheese sandwich. I have yet to become tired of it, and I eat it all the time. Cookies. Desserts. I love our desserts. Our pastry chef does a really good job.
When not here, where do you like to eat? In my kitchen. [Laughs.] I cook a lot. I have family, I have kids. I spend my time with them cooking, and that's where it is. I don't dine out as much as I could. I mean, I love all the great restaurants in San Francisco. I love Tartine, Bi-Rite for ice cream. See, these are all the kid-friendly places. Delfina pizza is great.
What's your favorite part of working at Outerlands? Everything about it keeps me here. From the aesthetic, that's what initially draws so many of our employees in. Feeling drawn to the space in general, and I know that was an initial attraction for me. And the owners are amazing people. That's a huge part of it. I feel very comfortable here and very good about devoting my time and energy to their vision. That's the biggest thing. Also the staff. The food is phenomenal. It's a recipe for perfection in a restaurant.
Do you have advice for other Gatekeepers? I think that a smile goes the longest way. It's so easy to get overwhelmed or get busy. We interact with a hundred people in a mere couple of hours, every single day, every single shift. It's so easy to just herd people in and manage the crowd, rather than relate to individuals and make every individual realize that you actually do care about them. And patience. And cider. Selling the cider. Those things all help.