A year ago, Thomas Dunklin and Kyle Rourke opened The Waiting Room, a fried chicken, oysters, champagne, and cocktail restaurant in the old two-story Craftsman house on NW Kearney Street, which is just spitting distance from the NW 23rd commercial corridor.
When they signed a lease, they knew what they were getting into. The last few restaurants that operated out of the space either crashed and burned or slowly fizzled out, including the Laurelwood, Northwest Public House, the Huckleberry Pub, and the Peddler and Pen.
But they seemed to have found the right concept for the space, and they tell Eater that weekend nights and Sunday brunches have been so easy that they’re now seating people upstairs.
They told Eater a bunch of other things, too, including what their new plans are for that second floor.
You two went from being chefs to being chefs and business owners. What have you learned in your first year?
Dunklin: The city wants their money (laughs). It’s been a long year, especially coming into this building. The main question we had over the first six months was, “What was the last place that was here?” But one year in, we have consistent regulars who just understand our product, understand out brand. It’s helped us build a bond and a connection to guests that had a bad experience here—in the building—from past businesses.
For many years, the space has been seen as jinxed. How are you battling that preconception?
Dunklin: There were highs and lows. In the first couple of months, we were standing there staring at each other, looking at the bank account and staring at each other and thinking, “What do we do?” And as operators, we have to constantly reinvent ourselves but also stay consistent with what we’re doing.
Rourke: Not being busy at the very beginning, we found that every person who came in here was vital to our business. It brings us out front to build this connection with people, which I’ve never had to do in other kitchens. We realized we’ve just gotta tell our story and build some trust.
What advice do you have for first-time restaurateurs?
Dunklin: (Laughs) Don’t have a kid like me. (His third kid, a son, was born on Halloween).
Rourke: Yeah, he was born about three weeks before I got married.
Dunklin: You’ve just got to know what you’re doing and that you’ve gotta love it. It’s hard work. We know budgets, but we didn’t realize that there are multitudes of [federal, state, and city] taxes.
Rourke: And I think it comes down to our partnership, too. Last summer we lost one of our fryers and we were cooking on a rondo on a flattop, and then the next day, the hood goes out on a Saturday at three o’clock. We had the hood off all morning while we were prepping and then we flip it on and it doesn’t go. But it’s how we deal with stuff, you know? We don’t freak out, we don’t point and say, “Who’s fault is this?” We just figure it out.
Dunklin: It was just a very odd day, but we got open and we did a busy dinner service.
(Turns out the hood was fine. They Googled electricians and clicked on the first name they came across. He showed up an hour later and found the problem: A faulty wire. The electrician patched it and got them open for service that night, but he left before they had a chance to pay him. In fact, they never even got his name. He’s since removed his Google ad. So if that was you, mystery electrician, Dunklin and Roark want to compensate you.)
Dunklin: So upstairs, we’re still working on a name, but we going to make it a separate entity, sort of a cocktail, absinthe, champagne bar with oysters, crudo, and classic hors d’oeuvres, keeping it more classic loungey.
Rourke: Chaz Madrigal out of Seattle will tend bar.
Dunklin: We’re kicking it off by opening Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but we’re hoping to take it to five nights a week. I think we’re going to do a pre-lim on April 11.
Rourke: Yeah, and we’re talking to a couple of other bartenders if we can get rotating people. It’s about rolling out the program and getting it dialed in before we expand it.
Dunklin: And starting in late April or early May, we’re going to start doing the Sunday porch parties. Very casual, after brunch, we’ll keep the bar open and we’ll have something very casual, like maybe we’ll do a crawfish boil or a barbecue. It’s all about when the sun comes out and stays out. And it’s all about having fun. You come in here, there’s no expectation of sitting down, no tablecloths, just drink some beer and eat some crawfish or some ribs.
The Waiting Room: 2327 NW Kearney St., 503.477.4380