Welcome back to the Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Chef John Gorham has a knack for creating hotspots: Between tapas restaurant Toro Bravo and brunch favorite Tasty N Sons (not to mention the shiny new American pub Interurban), it's likely that most Portlanders have waited in line at a Gorham establishment. Eater sat down with manager Renee Gorham at the Gorham empire mothership — Toro Bravo — to talk about the spot's uncompromising wait list (even Charlize Theron didn't get a bump up), crazy dietary requests, and having to call the ambulance "almost once a month."
It's 8pm on a Saturday. How long is the wait?
The wait can vary anywhere from 20-30 minutes to and hour-and-a-half to two hours, depending on the size of your party. We do take reservations for seven or more Sunday through Thursday, so Friday and Saturday night are going to be walk-in regardless.
What's the mentality behind the no reservation policy?
Quite honestly, it's really hard to judge how fast our tables are going to turn here, and the secret to keeping the value of Toro Bravo where it is, is keeping every seat full. Also, keeping the vibe and energy up in here requires a lot of people at the front door. In Spain, tapas bars and restaurants are places that you pop into, have a couple bites — they frequently don't have seats at all. People have made Toro Bravo more into a restaurant than a tapas bar, but it's great to have people and gather around our host stand and have a tortilla espanol and have a cocktail, and go onto the next place as they would in Spain.
Let's say I walk in at 8pm — is there anything I could do to make my wait shorter?
I will give you the biggest secret — and that is to stay and wait here in the house. When you give people a two-hour wait time, even a half-hour wait time, they venture off to wait somewhere close by — which is a great option. But if you wait here, there's always somebody that drops off the list, which opens up a spot in my book. And if you're in the house, you are very likely to be sat in a shorter time than expected.
Do you have any favorite regulars?
I would say probably 50 percent of our guests are regulars, depending on the evening... We're going into almost five years here, and there's definitely people that have been coming since day one, which is an honor, to say the least. There's people who love the bar and they come to solely to sit at the bar, and they will wait three hours to get a seat there. We have two people, Mike and Joe, and they've been supporting us since the beginning: They consistently come every Thursday at 8:15 to sit at the bar with Mindy. They are very specific diners, and we know exactly what they want — we know they want two scoops, in separate bowls, of vanilla ice cream with two shots of '07 PX [sherry] on the side.
What about celebrities?
Yeah, there's definitely some out-of-town chefs that make their way through... I was training a new host at one point and John [Gorham] came in for dinner, and she was stunned that I put him on the list, as well. That's just how you gotta work the book. As far as celebrities go, there's been a handful. Portland's had great exposure lately with films and TV shows being shot here, and we get a number of those coming in. The Portlandia crew loves to come in and they do so frequently — we love those guys, they're as funny in person as they are on TV. We've had a handful of people from Grimm come in lately. Keri Russell, she came in quite a bit when she was doing something in town. Although when Charlize Theron was quoted an hour-and-a-half and I couldn't do anything about it, she didn't stay.
Tell me about some of the crazy requests you'd had from guests.
I [once] had a lady who couldn't eat salt, and that was a very challenging request. Everything in here is made in a kitchen with salt. I think we made her spinach and olive oil, something a la minute. If we can do it, we like to say we're a "yes" house, and we'll certainly try. Anything in, from, or around the ocean she couldn't eat, which included salt. It was certainly our most challenging request.
What's it like to work in such an energetic, loud environment?
I swear — and maybe this is just random — but I've never worked in a restaurant where more people have fainted or passed out, or I've had to call 911. Wait. How many times has that happened? Almost once a month. I'm totally serious. It's funny but... not. There's so much going on here that sometimes people are just overwhelmed. There's also probably that factor of "I've waited two hours and I'm starving," or "I had a little too much to drink." We've had heart attacks, we've had people just pass out and not wake up, we've had a fire. We've had to call 911 on a regular basis. And it's not something I'm ever prepared for, but it's happened so much that we now have manager protocol when something like that happens.
So what do you do?
It's not something I want people to be afraid of, but certainly there have been occasions where you just kind of have to keep going. In fact, I've had a complaint where I had an elderly woman who become short of breath and fainted, and by the time 911 arrived with two fire trucks, an ambulance, a stretcher — they've got the door propped open and it's cold — of course my interest is to make sure this woman is okay, but we keep going and the list and service doesn't stop. I politely asked this woman and her dining companion to go with the ambulance, and she refused. They responded in a way that I found disruptive — it's certainly not about business at that point, but I have the other 75 diners in mind and I want to make everyone's experience pleasant. So if you do require emergency services, I will ask politely that you please go with the ambulance.
And finally, what's your most important Gatekeeper tool?
Genuine hospitality, and an appreciation of every guest that walks in the door. If you don't have that, you shouldn't be in the restaurant business. It's truly an honor to have any single person come into any of our restaurants, and when you walk through our door, you're giving us your precious time. That's a gift that should be honored, and we have the opportunity to grace every one of your senses. And sometime with a two-hour wait, that's a lot of time you're giving us. We want everyone to know that we genuinely appreciate that.
· All Previous Toro Bravo Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous Gatekeepers [Eater PDX
Photography by Dina Avila