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Ox's GM on the Spot's Two-Hour Waits, Campfire Scents

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This is 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.

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[Avila, 8/5/12]

Since chefs Greg and Gabrielle Denton's busy, buzzy, deliciously-smoky Ox opened April 24 to near-instant adoration, general manager Natalie Obeso (Commander's Palace, Metrovino) has deftly manned the door, as wildfire word of mouth and critical acclaim (particularly the Oregonian's grade A late-July review) prompted waits to balloon to two and a half hours — inspiring the Dentons to open their own bar/waiting room, Whey Bar, scheduled to debut next week. Eater sat down with Obeso and got the skinny on eager diners willing to endure two-and-a-half-hour waits, the best lamb chop she's ever tasted, becoming immune to smelling like a campfire, and the restorative power of an empanada.

When is the dinner wait at its most gruesome?
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays tend to be the nights when it gets the most gruesome at the door. I think with summertime, on Friday and Saturday nights people go out of town, or they go to the river, so we're still busy, but we're not running a 90-minute to two-hour wait. But last Tuesday, I ran the door, and we were running two and a half hour waits for some tables. Sometimes, randomly, the restaurant will fill up between 5:30 and 6p.m., but those nights are few and far between. It's mainly between 6:30 and 7p.m. that it fills up, and since the dining room is so tiny, once everything is seated, that's it, it's going to be two hours.

Is there any way around the wait? Reservations, sitting at the bar, cold hard cash?
No cash. I cannot accept that. But what I can do, is if you are willing to sit anywhere, I'll get you at the bar, I'll get you at the grill, I will do my best to make something happen for you. I will bring you cocktails outside and I will make you as comfortable as I possibly can. Reservations are for parties of six or more, the space is just too tiny to accept reservations for all sizes. You can walk in and sit at the bar, the earlier you come, but once dinner service gets going and people want to sit at the bar, I'll save these seats for people who want to have dinner.

Have you had lines and waits from the get go, or is this a relatively new development?
We've had waits from the get go, but as the reviews have come out, the waits have been getting longer, and ever since the O's very generous review, the phone does not stop ringing. And you'd be surprised how many patrons have come in to say congratulations, or "we read the review, we're here to try it." I was so nervous about that review, I didn't realize how much it would matter to me, but it feels like our hard work is paying off.

How do people respond when you tell them it's going to be a two-hour wait on a Tuesday?
Not everybody wants to wait, and not everybody is happy to hear that it's 90 minutes. And I'm sympathetic to that, I totally understand that. I've never had anybody be mean about it, but what I've found is that if you get somebody a drink and you make sure they have bread and you get them some water and you let them know that you care and that you are doing everything you can to get them a table, people tend to understand. Not everybody does, not everybody wants to sit and wait, I've had people say "Uh-uh, I'm not doing that, we'll just come back tomorrow at 5," but I'm surprised at how many people want to stay and wait, it's amazing.

What's your crowd like? Is it neighborhood types, foodies, out of towners? Obviously it's Oregonian readers.
It's a mix. We get a lot of neighbors, a lot of our regulars that have been so supportive from the beginning that live in the neighborhood. We do get a lot of foodies, people in the industry recommend Ox, and some of the best chefs come here, and it's such a compliment. And I've had a lot of people call from out of town, who've read about the restaurant and want to try it.

If you could only eat one cut of meat on the menu until the end of time, what would it be?
The lamb chop. I love lamb, and chef makes the best lamb chop I have ever tasted. Lamb has a really distinct flavor and smell, and it reminds me of home, my mom always made lamb. I like the marbling, I like the fat, and I like to suck on the T-bone, it's so succulent and juicy, it's just delicious.

How do vegan diners fare here?
They are blown away, because it's a great restaurant for vegans and vegetarians, and for people who have gluten allergies or dairy allergies. The menu is so approachable and well thought out — it appeals to everyone and doesn't exclude anyone.

What is your ideal meal, apertif to digestif?
To start, my cocktail would be the Dirty Grandma Agnes, it's so delicious. For an appetizer, I would start with the truffle pork pate, and the beef tongue, it's beautiful, then I would have the lamb chop, the hominy, and the grilled radicchio salad. For dessert, I'd have the hazelnut brown butter torte with chamomile ice cream. And I'd finish with a Fernet.

How do you unwind after a particularly wild night at the restaurant? Xanax, a good scream in the woodshed, a favorite bar?
I usually end up at the Rose and Thistle after a crazy night. I like to go on Wednesdays and Thursdays when Marty the owner is bartending, and I'll have a cocktail or a glass of wine, and you can sit on the patio and smoke and laugh and talk.

Considering that you're new to the GM role, is the job what you expected it would be?
It's more. I knew I would enjoy it, but the people I interact with, and the people that work here, and all the glorious reviews — it's all very gratifying. I've never been a GM before, so to get such nice feedback and to work with so many great people, it really feels like I've made the right decision. It's very intense and intimidating, and I questioned myself a lot in the beginning but I don't do that anymore. And everyone's been so supportive, we have a really great team, it's one of the few restaurants I've worked at where there is no division between the front of the house and the back of the house, we all work really well together. That's probably one of the things that makes Ox so appealing, you can feel when you walk into the restaurant that everyone enjoys being here and everyone enjoys one another, and it's such a happy place, so bright and inviting, and with the smell of the grill, the ambiance here is lovely.

Speaking of smelling the grill, do all your clothes smell like campfire now?
At first I couldn't really smell it, but my husband would be like, oooohhh, and I'd be like [sniffs shirt], oh, I do smell like smoke. I don't notice it as much now, or maybe I just don't smell it anymore. I'm not a camping kinda girl, but it's a good smell.

What's your most important Gatekeepers tool?
You have to be strong and you have to be kind — there's a way to tell people that it's 90 minutes and they still want to stay and wait. It's really important for people to feel like you care about them getting a table, and that you're paying attention to when they came in, and what wait they were quoted. People like to hear an update and they don't want to be forgotten. When someone's waiting for a table, 30 minutes can feel like an hour, so if you just pop out and say "it's been 30 minutes, please know this is where you're at and I'm watching," it's very reassuring. There have been times when I've under-quoted by accident, and then the tables didn't turn or there were too many big tables, and I go out and say "I'm so sorry and here's a cocktail and I will bring you an empanada," because that's what people need and that's what I would want, I would want somebody to care about what's happening to me! When people have dedicated that much time to dining at your restaurant, it's important that they know you care for them.
· Ox [Official site]
· All Previous Ox Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous Gatekeepers Coverage [Eater PDX]

Ox

2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Portland, Oregon 97212 Visit Website

Ox

2225 Northeast MLK Jr. Blvd., Portland, OR

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