This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables.
Laurelhurst Market general manager Melissa Radtke (an alum of the fire-shuttered Sel Gris) oversees a deceptively small — 66-seat — dining room known for its killer weekend waits. "I think this restaurant looks a lot bigger than it is, because it's so open," Radkte says. "It feels a lot bigger — [but] we don't have that many tables to turn." Eater recently caught up with Radkte to talk about favorite tables, the restaurant's legion of Bon App fans, and that not-so-secret call-ahead system.
It's eight o'clock on a Saturday — how long is the average wait?
It really does depend — and I don't want to deter anyone from coming in — but it's usually around two hours. For two people, an hour and 15 minutes, an hour and a half.
Yikes. Is anything guests could do to make their wait shorter?
We let people call ahead and ask to have their name put on the wait lists. So, if they call an hour or so in advance — it's not a reservation, it doesn't guarantee them a table when they arrive — but it should help the wait. I try to tell everybody [to do that], because it makes it a little less painful. And then, people can leave too — they'll put their name down and go down the street, or go home, and we can call them when the table's ready. [The call-ahead system] used be kind of secretive, and then I just started telling everybody. I wanted to be fair, and the more people that know, it does make people less grumpy.
During your time here, LM has gotten some serious national press. Have you noticed a difference in the crowds that come because of that?
It was really busy even when I started, but the Bon Appetit article that came out last September that definitely — we take all our reservations by e-mail — and the volume of e-mails that I would get every morning quadrupled for a little while. And more internationally — a lot of phone calls from people from New York — that was definitely felt right when the article came out. And everybody read it; people were coming in with [the magazine]. It was really cute. We have the most eclectic group of guests of anywhere I've ever worked. We do have so many regulars and neighborhood people, but we do get a lot of people that live somewhere else and are like, "We have to go to this restaurant."
Tell us about your regulars.
We have a ton of regulars. We have some really funny characters, too, that come in. For them, we'll definitely do special little things. People have their "thing," too: There are bar regulars that only sit at the bar, the butcher shop has a ton of their own regulars, it's compartmentalized like that. We have so many — on any given night, half the dining room will be familiar. We have a lot of repeat business, which is great.
Any crazy requests?
I have never been asked anything out of the ordinary. The only thing people ask me a million times a day, which I find really funny, is "What's the wait going to be next Tuesday at 7?" I don't know! All day long, I get that. Everyone wants to know how busy it's going to be.
Do you have a favorite table?
I do — it's funny, everyone's really opinionated about where they want to sit. I always seat the room and try to keep it balanced. But there are tables I really like. Early in the night, this table, Table 53, I think is the best one — especially in the summertime, it's nice when the doors are open, because we open the big sliding doors. And I like Table 52 a lot as well. I like the banquettes better. Do people ask specifically to sit facing the open kitchen? Yes, and we try to seat that way, too. If it's two people versus one, I'll put them facing that way. I did have one person get really upset that there wasn't a chef's counter — their little girl wanted to watch. What does happens a lot, which I find really amusing, is when you seat people, a couple times a night, they'll go, "This is the only table I've ever eaten at here. Every time I come, I get seated at this table." Seems to happen a lot.
What about diners that come in with a lot of questions? I'm guessing that there's maybe an educational aspect when it comes to certain cuts of meat.
Absolutely. A lot of these cuts — French people know; when you go to explain what bavette (flank steak) is, they know [what it is] — but Americans... everyone that works here is so good at doing that and not in a snobby way. This is what we're here for. A lot of the cuts I had never had before, and I've worked in restaurants for a long time. I think that they do a really good job of explaining it and making people feel comfortable to ask. Let us know if you have any questions at all.
So what are your favorite things on the menu here?
Absolutely the sweetbreads. Right now, it has braised pork belly, braised cabbage, a little apple butter, and it is ridiculously good. Our mozzarella is really yummy — it's pulled to order. All the sandwiches are good — it changes, but they do a steak melt. And one of my friends, I have to text her or call her to let her know if they have the steak melt that day, and she'll literally come to get it. Tuesday is fried chicken day, and right now we also have this flat-iron that melts in your mouth.
What about other favorite places to eat around town?
I love Country's Bills. It's super-old school, and the kid that is the chef there makes these specials from scratch. I love that little bar; it's great. And I love Le Pigeon, Little Bird, and Biwa. Those are definitely my three favorite places.
And finally, what's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
Not to get frazzled. And just to keep smiling — which is really hard sometimes, but it always makes it worse if you start stressing too much. So, just trying to be really happy and smiling even when you're delivering really bad news to people seems to help the situation. ... You really have to keep positive, because it's up to you to keep the night going well, with good energy. And if you start getting grumpy, you're ruining it yourself.
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