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.
Ava Gene's general manager Mike Miloscia might seem like a slick, tough cookie from the Bronx on the outside, but he's the first to admit that he moved to Portland for love. "I met a girl in New York who's from Portland, and we fell in love," Miloscia says. "She suggested I come out here. And I knew that if there was any industry where it would be an easy transition, it would be the one I'm in." And it was. On the east coast, Miloscia had a hand in opening a long, impressive list of establishments, including Yotel in New York, Buddakan in Atlantic City, and spots with the Fatty Crew.
Newly in Portland, Miloscia slid right into the Woodsman Group in late 2013, taking the reins at Ava Gene's right after all the restaurant's positive press (namely, Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant accolade) hit the stands: For the past six months, Miloscia says, every day has felt like Friday — but the kind of Friday without the benefit of a weekend behind it. Eater had a chance to catch up with Miloscia and chat about how good press effects the atmosphere of a space, long wait times, his thoughts on crossing the bridge, and how he handles a mini-brawl.
When is the busiest time to try for a table?
Every night is Friday night. Things are coming to a normal place now, where every day is different — a little bit. But for months, every night was Friday night. There's a lot of people traveling from outside of Portland, so everyone is looking to make a reservations, so there's been a stigma that were a really hard place to get into. But the truth of it is, we've been monitoring walk-in traffic and requests from those people travel from a far, and we've recently opened up a lot of more availability than we have in the past. We always keep the kitchen counter and the bar open for walk-ins... we are not as hard to get into as they think we are.
What is the wait for a table Friday night at 7:30p.m. if you're just walking in without a reservation?
A table [could be occupied until] 10:30p.m., so it could be three hours. For the seats at the counter or the bar, it could be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
How do you break the long wait news to guests coming in?
I say: "Listen, a lot of times guests cancel. We have reservations up and coming, a lot of times guests no show. Sometimes people finish a lot earlier than we're anticipating. I'm telling you two hours because a party of two typically spends around two hours with us, on average. But some guests are in and out in under an hour, somebody might just have a pasta. Let me take your cell phone number, grab a cocktail from us, have a seat outside or bring it to Roman Candle. You can go inside Roman Candle and have a snack, have something to drink, and I'll come get you myself as soon as it's ready. If you're going to cruise the neighborhood, we'll send you a text or we'll call you, but I'd rather play it on the safe side and not disappoint you and maybe surprise you, than under quote you."
Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX
How do guests react to a three hour quote?
We always try to accommodate people. And we always try to work with who's in front of us — which is most important. There are always people that find it funny, when they say, "How long?" And it's six o'clock and they want a table of five. That's difficult in a small restaurant, especially that has reservations, and especially in a place where people are spending a lot of time... So you know, at six o'clock, when they want to know when the next party of five is, and I say something to you like "10:30." I get the "Really?! Really. c'mon" [reaction], or just laughs. Then smiles, and it's like, "Well, you guys are on to something."
What's the best time to walk in and grab a table?
Monday night is the "off night" if there is one. And early is always best, if you can come in at five o'clock, because everybody wants to eat at 7:30p.m. If you can make a compromise. If you're willing to be a doorbuster, you'll have a seat in this restaurant every night of the week. And late, we've also seen a slowdown in post-10p.m. reservations. There was a time when we had an army of 10:30, 10:45, 11 o'clock reservations, but now after 10, if you make that compromise for yourself also, chances are you'll find a seat for yourself.
Is there a strong group of regulars here?
Yeah, we have a lot of those. I've opened six restaurants in the last eight years, and for me, the scratching and clawing for that group of regular clientele is the most important thing to me. A lot of restaurants let the press get to their heads, and then they lose sense of how important that is, because press is only going to last so long. I think you get a good six solid months out of press and the rest is about grassroots hospitality. Giving a shit, for a lack of better words. And that's the most important thing for me. You can come sit at the bar and have a bowl of pasta, you can have some meats and cheeses and salad and not have your wallet hurt really bad. Also, it doesn't have to be a three-and-a-half hour experience. It can be, but it can also be a 45-minute experience.
How about celebrity clientele?
We've had some movers and shakers. There's been an NBA player or two here. There's been an actress or two here. There have been some influential Silicon Valley guys here, but being from New York, it's not quite like what you're used to. This restaurant in New York would be filled with celebrities on a nightly basis. We'll take it; it's cool. We did have a celebrity here, a very, very famous actress sitting very unassumingly next to a table of four older folks and not one of them had a clue who was sitting next to them. And this was an A-list celebrity, and you see how close these tables are. They had no idea. They didn't even look even once. It was awesome. So, hey, I want to be that place.
Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX
Where will we find you outside of work?
I'm one of those guys where I really don't like to leave my neighborhood. I've been here six months and I've crossed the river three times. [Laughs] I'm really happy in SE, so I kind of stay in this zone. Having moved from Burnside to Division I'm learning this part now. I literally just moved last weekend. But being on 30th and Burnside for the last six months, I really found a love affair with PaaDee and Bamboo Sushi. Angel Face just opened, and I really like that spot, super cute. My buddy Gregory at Departure was one of the only times I crossed the river, so I do like that spot as well. I just had the fried chicken at Reel Em In last night, and I'm super happy about that. I'm looking forward to Division Street.
What's the craziest thing you've seen happen in a restaurant during your 18 years in the industry?
There was a time in the Lower East Side, where I opened a very rowdy, kind of grungy, hip SE Asian street food style spot. No reservations. It was really hard to get into, with only 35 seats. It was just me running the door. We were coming off a really solid review, and I had this group of six or seven people at a tight table that wanted to move to another table where they saw eight people get up. But really those were eight small tables, and I had people on the waitlist totally allocated for all of those tables, that had been waiting just as long as they had. They were drunk, because they'd been waiting across the street beforehand. They were just not having that.
It came to a point where there was just nothing more I could say. One of them stood up and pushed me and I turned around and another one at the table had a chair over his head getting ready to smash it over my cranium. After that, you know, we've got all the line cooks running out, there was like a mini-brawl, tables were tipping, people were getting up, plates were smashing on the ground. We finally threw them out, they left, we didn't need to call the police, and then the music got louder, and everybody got back to their eating and having a good time, and then it was just business as usual after that.
What are the most important Gatekeeper tools?
My phone and my sanity. And kindness. I find that, you have to be calm, all the time. Keep your cool, everything is going to work out. You might be anticipating a problem two hours from now, but there's no need to get worked up about it now. I think it instills a sense of confidence in the guest, seeing that we are remaining calm, especially in the face of adversity. And my phone because I'm constantly checking the time and my e-mail. The amount of e-mail requests we get here is unbelievable to the size of the restaurant. It's almost a three-person job. If I didn't have my phone, it would hurt the restaurant.
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