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.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Since opening in 2004, the Naples-influenced A16 has gained a strong reputation for its wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, freshly-made pastas and wine program. Owner and wine director Shelley Lindgren's nearly decade-old restaurant is one of the most-booked restaurants in the city, and it's seen a slew of notable chefs in that time, such as Nate Appleman, Liza Shaw and current executive chef (and Eater readers' pick for the hottest male chef in SF) Chris Thompson. Eater recently met up with A16's reservations and customer-relations manager, Penelope Grill, to talk about the waits, the pizzas, and their crayon selection.
7:30 p.m on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table? It's all over the map. We have about a third of the restaurant reserved for walk-ins, and it can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours. As long as people are flexible, we usually can find something pretty quickly.
Any advice on how to make the wait shorter? As long as they're flexible and here to have fun, things come up all the time. Our bar can move really quickly, our chef's counter is all for walk-ins. So as long as they're flexible and are willing to sit where we have availability. Technically, we can't do anything to make the wait shorter, but they can.
Do you ever get people who make negotiations for a table? Definitely. I've seen that. But it's always a really nice gesture. Our hosts are all really great people and I think when you have twenty sets of hungry eyes staring all around you, no one's going to get to jump the front of the list. It's not worth a $100 bill to have the other people around you feel like they've been taken advantage of.
In the three years you've been here, what's the most outrageous request you've heard? Oh, we've had some funny ones. I think my favorite one that I was actually able to accommodate was we had a famous older singer visit, and he was very insistent that he have a Diet Coke. We don't carry Diet Coke, but I went next door and got it from him. I didn't think it was worth putting up a fight. He's a funny one. And then there are some children who ask for a better selection of crayon colors, which I should probably work on accommodating. We only have primary colors.
At least you have more than one color. There you go. I like that attitude.
Who are some of your favorite customers? All of our regulars are wonderful people. Lunch regulars who come to our bar two or three days a week. They constantly have great travel stories and make us all laugh, but we have such a great neighborhood presence and people who just walk here and might bring their families, or just come in by themselves and have pizza and wine at the bar. So, great neighborhood presence for sure.
And you used to work with Nicole Conrardy, the maître d' at Rich Table? Yes, she trained me as a host. One of our hosts has been here since the night that we opened. So, nine years. And she trained Nicole, and Nicole trained me, and she is so funny. I miss her. She's our little jewelry maker. We've had two jewelry-making hosts. One of our hosts is a photographer. We have a writer. All of our hosts are fabulous artists and human beings. Dancers. All across the board.
I worked on Chestnut Street in 2007, and I remember the exciting rumor on the street at the time was that Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon ate here. Oh, that was before my time, but I do remember that story.
Have you been starstruck since working here? It's funny, we'll all get excited about people in the restaurant industry that come in, and feel sort of starstruck by them. But I'm a big classic-rock fan and we have a lot of really great musicians and rock stars in here. So I always get excited, but I've been able to keep my cool. I've never dropped red wine on anyone's head or anything. [Laughs.]
What's your favorite item on the menu? Oh, that's so hard. I love our pizzas. I lived in Italy and would take the train to Naples to just go eat pizza. So that was a big point in working here for me, how much I love Neapolitan-style pizza. I think our pizzas are so well done and so authentic. God, I don't even know if I have a favorite pizza. I love our bianca pizza and our margherita. And desserts; I have a huge sweet tooth. Our pastry chef kills it. Oh, and our salumi is excellent. Our chef is really focused on curing. It's always awesome.
Do you have advice for other Gatekeepers out there? What I've learned from managing is the importance of your staff. Of showing appreciation and setting the right examples. We couldn't do anything without our host team. They're so fabulous and the anchor of the restaurant. So I would say fostering and appreciating a great staff. Enjoying what you're doing and having fun with the staff and guests. A positive spirit is contagious. And repeating and remembering names. It makes a big difference.