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.
As Oven & Shaker approaches its six-month anniversary, things are still honeymoonish in this marriage of chef Cathy Whims' Italian street food and wood-fired pizzas and bar manager Ryan Magarian's classic craft cocktails. Eater sat down with general manager/Gatekeeper Nick Schuurman, who extolls the virtues of having a Transformer-like dining room, walks us through his ideal meal from apertif to digestif, and explains why you cannot bribe an Oven & Shaker hostess with your Rolex, Yorkie, or Benjamin.
When does the wait reach its boiling point — the absolute worst time to walk in and ask for a table?
The absolute worst time is going to be Saturday night at 7:30pm with more than four people. I do think there are some misconceptions about our wait time though, very rarely do we ever quote more than 15-30 minutes for a group of two people, even at 7:30 on a Saturday night. It's the groups that walk in with 6-8 people that get quoted the 60-90 minute wait times. We're lucky because our dining room is kind of like a Transformer, the tables are all really manipulative so we can accommodate larger groups at any one of the tables, it's just a matter of getting all the tables that are next to each other back at the same time.
I couldn't find the R-word on your website. Do you take them?
We don't take them, no. Reservations are super tricky, you generally end up sitting on a table a lot longer than you anticipated in preparation for the reservation, and thus adding to other peoples' wait times. We also want to keep it really casual here, to where anybody can just pop in, have a pizza and a drink at any given time, and not have to think ahead to call and make a reservation. But if you are showing up with 20 people on Saturday night, we always like it if you call and tell us that you're coming; it's by no means a reservation, but a heads-up is great so we can plan on it.
Can you get around the wait by sitting at the bar?
No, we seat the bar just like the dining room until about 10pm, after 10 we have late-night happy hour and we open the bar up and it's much more casual — you seat yourself at any spot that's available and it's more of a bar atmosphere than a dinner atmosphere. As far as reducing the wait, it's good to think ahead that you are going to eat here and maybe plan to go have a drink and then we'll call you when your table is available.
Fairly or unfairly, the Pearl District has a reputation for being a little uppity. Do people ever give you Pearl attitude when you tell them the wait?
We've been really fortunate, the neighborhood has been very welcoming. A lot of our regulars live in the buildings around us and they love it because they come over, put their name on the list, and go home, then we call them when their table is ready. Honestly, I can count on one hand when we've had any sort of attitude and I don't know if it was Pearl attitude or just attitude.
Has anyone tried to bribe you for a table with their Rolex or Yorkie?
Um no, no Yorkies, but we've certainly had people who've tried to slip the occasional tip to the host to get a little bit higher on the list. We don't accept them. We want to be fair to everyone and seat people in the order they got here so no one feels left out. We had a gentleman offer a hundred bucks last weekend, and the hostesses were looking at me like I was a jerk, but I was like, no.
As far as diner requests go, what's the most outlandish request you've ever gotten?
I don't know that I've had too many real crazy requests, but we're still pretty new, so I'm sure they're still coming. We did get a request for a pizza with no crust. Because we don't do gluten-free crust, they wanted all the toppings just kind of on a plate, and for us to melt the cheese a little. We couldn't do it, it would have just been a blob of stuff on a plate. That might be the weirdest one so far.
What's your ideal meal here, from apertif to digestif?
When I come in for dinner, I generally start with the Pepper Smash, an aquavit and bell pepper juice cocktail that Ryan created. Then I work my way through the menu — I always have our ham plate, and the lamb lollipop, which is just a lamb chop broken down and done in a Milanese style, and then for pizza, our goat cheese and speck pizza, it's dynamite. After the Pepper Smash I work my way into the wine list, we just put on a really great blend that Cathy created with Cana's Feast, the Cavallo Rosso, that's what I would drink as far as wine goes. For dessert, our housemade gelatos, you can't go wrong with them. Personally I'm a chocolate freak, and we do a Cipriani chocolate that is just awesome, like frozen chocolate pudding in a cup. For a digestif, I would probably go with Amaro: Ryan's turned me on to the luxury of Amaros; we do a Nardini Amaro that's quite good, a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet.
Do people compare you to Nostrana, is there any sibling rivalry there?
The guests compare us. It was a real challenge when we first opened, people coming down and wanting this to be 'Nostrana in the Pearl,' and it's taken time for people to realize that although it's Cathy's delicious food and pizza like you can get at Nostrana, we're doing it with our own twist. It's a little bit louder in here, a little bit less fine dining, the style of service and the speed at which you eat is quicker than at Nostrana, but I think we've started to move away from the comparisons. Once in a while though, we'll still get someone who comes in and is bummed that they can't get the Nostrana porchetta.
While we're on the subject of comparisons — sometimes Nostrana's late-night happy hour is really crowded, how's yours?
I don't know that people know about our late-night happy hour yet, because we're doing the exact same happy hour as Nostrana, but it's still pretty quiet. I don't know if it's a reflection of the neighborhood being a little quieter at night, or if people just haven't caught on that you can get super-cheap good pizza here after 10pm.
Okay, next question — so who do you like the best, Cathy or Ryan?
[Looks shocked] Um. Boy. You know, I really enjoy working with both of them, and that's not just me playing PC — Ryan's passion and exuberance for the trade that he brings to the table, and Cathy's passion for local fresh ingredients is just dynamite. I don't know if I could pick one. You don/t really have to, I was just kidding. Okay. Whoa.
And finally, what is your most important Gatekeeper tool?
Listening to the guests. We are busy and there can be confusion about how we do things, so I really try to hear out the guests and hear where we can help them as far as their understanding of when they're getting their table. People come in hungry and sometimes they're waiting 30 minutes to eat even though maybe they're already a little bit low blood sugar and cranky, and so we really listen to their concerns and try to accommodate them the best we can.
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