Being the mother of two discerning foodie sons and the co-author (or sometimes ghost writer) of many a chef’s cookbook, I have had my share of great dinners and luscious wines. And, I am frequently asked about my favorite restaurant and/or my favorite meal. It is easier to answer the latter as my favorite meal is always one that has been shared with people I love – no matter where it is. The former is not always easy to answer as each restaurant that I do enjoy is usually for a specific type of food or style of service. However, in our family the always-go-to restaurant for family gatherings, celebrations, or business meetings is Mickey’s (my son) most favorite spot, Gramercy Tavern. And, one of the main reasons that this is so is Scott Reinhardt, one of the most endearing “front-of-the-house” stalwarts that I know.
Steve and I popped into the Tavern the other day for a burger at the bar and since the busy lunch service was just about over we had a wonderful visit with Scott, who is formally known as the Assistant General Manager. I asked Scott what the most frequently asked questions were about running the restaurant and he answered, without thinking at all, “How do I get a 7 o’clock reservation on Saturday night?”; “How do we create such a welcoming atmosphere?”; “Where do we find our staff?” And, then he proceeded to answer each one in his wonderfully relaxed way.
Now about the 7 o’clock reservation – here are Scott’s suggestions. “Try to plan ahead – we start taking reservations via website and by calling the reservation department at 10:00 a.m., every morning, 28 days in advance. Most prime time tables get reserved pretty quick. If you do not get one, take a less-desired time and let the reservationist know what your desired time is. We get cancellations all of the time; unfortunately, they usually come very close to the reserved day so you might want to make a Plan B, just in case. We also keep a wait list for cancellations and we do get guests off the wait list almost every night of the week. And, if you do want to become a “regular” at Gramercy Tavern, ask to speak to a manager and get their business card; we cannot always help but we do try hard.” I’d say that this pretty good advice to get that coveted table for 2 at 7:30!
We talked long about the welcoming atmosphere and the staff and Scott said “It’s just so difficult to pin it down. The environment happens because of the staff – we are very careful about who we hire. Most are restaurant professionals; this is not something they do to earn a living while they look for work in another field. They are dedicated to the restaurant and stay for quite a long time. For instance, I started here in 1997 and one of our waiters opened the restaurant in 1994. It is Danny Meyer’s philosophy that you hire people by who they are not what they know which has certainly worked for us. This kind of loyalty doesn’t happen in most restaurants.”
“But,” I asked, “how do you know who is going to fall into the family?” Scott thought for a moment and said, “It’s just a feeling you get from the person. I have found, over the years, that the people who have the roughest beginning – the ones we have taken a chance on – usually end up being our best. It just seems to work in our favor.” Then he added, “Sometimes we have to watch over their shoulders for a time, but if they are working at getting it right, we understand.”
I asked how many people the restaurant sat and was amazed to hear almost 200 and that it takes 180 in total staff to serve them. Almost everyone is a full-time employee with the exception of the lovely women in the coat check (New York’s hot summers don’t demand many coats), but even one of them has been at the restaurant for 10 years. Scott said “The staff truly all get along – those in the back and the front of the house which is not always the case. Our family meal (when all of the staff sit down together to eat before service) truly is a family gathering where we all catch up on each others lives”.
We asked Scott how he got started and how he maintains such an even calm. “I went to work right out of high school at a Marriott near my home on Long Island”. He added, laughing, “I almost didn’t get the job because I went to the interview in my knock-around clothes. Knew I had made a mistake, but was smart enough to get another interview and put on a suit”. (I smiled, thinking to myself, it must have been that first experience that has given Scott his current very dapper, elegant, dress-to-the-nines look). “I learned some basics and then went to work in my dad’s pub for a few years until I felt ready to open my own spot which I did by taking over the lease of an existing restaurant and putting my mark on it. Unfortunately when the lease was up, the landlord decided that we were doing so well he could quadruple the rent. So, I came to Manhattan and began my city career as a waiter at Mesa Grill. After a couple of years, I got really serious as I knew that restaurant work would be my life career”. And, I can tell you, serious he is about offering guests the best experience. He didn’t give me his secret for staying calm but perhaps it is because the restaurant business is filled with constant crisis so you just hunker down and go with the flow.
“What do you expect from guests?” I asked. Scott said “The one thing I wish that guests would do is tell us immediately if they are not happy about our food or service. Right then and there we can do something about it. We hit the mark about 98% of the time and when we don’t we try to rectify the unhappiness as quickly as possible. We want people to leave the restaurant raving about a memorable experience. We can do nothing except apologize after the fact”.
I noticed that during lunch service that Scott had quietly picked up some detritus that was on the floor so I asked “Do you notice everything?” He answered, “I try and we ask all of the staff to try also. Working here is more than just serving food, we are here to give the most complete dining out experience and that means each one of us doing whatever necessary to accomplish this. From the porters to the general manager, we all strive to run a perfect restaurant”.
When we finished talking, the restaurant was empty and the quiet was amazing. The staff was bustling about finishing with lunch chores and focusing on polishing and setting up for dinner. There was some gentle chattering but everyone was relaxed and calm, not harried and grumpled as you might expect after a busy lunch. Scott smiled and said “It really is a great place to work”. And, I think I learned that it is simply nice people working together that has made Gramercy Tavern our favorite restaurant.