This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
After graduating college, Peter Gugni, general manager at the Bedford who is also responsible for the beverage program at the restaurant/lounge, logged time working in a number of Chicago's nightclubs including Reserve and Crescendo before managing the Drawing Room and Le Passage. He ended up moving to San Francisco to work as the West Coast brand ambassador for Bacardi, but when Bedford partner Matt Mering, whom Gugni worked with at Reserve, called to say they found a perfect space, it wasn't long before Gugni returned to Chicago and started helping the team create this new project in the old MB Bank building at the corner of Ashland and Division.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
It usually runs between an hour and 45 minutes to two hours, sometimes a bit more. If you don't have a reservation you'll wait. We try to accommodate people if they come in and they're willing to wait. If you call a week in advance you can usually get a reservation on a Friday or Saturday, but December is a busy month.
If there's space in the bar, can people hang out there?
We serve the full dinner menu at the bar and people can experience that there. We have a great bar staff and [eating there] can be more fun because it's more interactive. We serve light appetizers and drinks in the lounge, the Vault, which is the [Bedford's] main attraction. So, if people are not able to get a table right away, they have other options.
How easy is it to snag a spot in the bar? And are all of those tables up for grabs?
There are quite a few spots. There are 16 chairs [at the bar], but the other tables are for reservations only.
So what about the Vault—how hard is it to get a table in there?
For the most part, it's first come, first served. We do have occasions that groups can rent out half the vault. We don't typically rent out the whole vault.
When the Bedford first opened, the Vault was strictly drinks only, why and when did you start allowing food?
We switched it up about three months ago. We had a lot of people ask about it and wanted something to munch on while waiting. We had wanted to keep it as a cocktail lounge, but we want to accommodate our guests. We wanted to keep it clean and organized [in there]. The tables there are more built for lounging and are lower so it may be uncomfortable to eat. It's not comfortable enough to have a full dining experience in there.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
Um, no. We don't want to single certain people out and make others wait. We try to be as diplomatic as possible. We also don't want to pack the place and have it be shoulder to shoulder. Once we get to that number that's comfortable, we try to do one in one out. As for skipping the line, we don't take bribes or anything.
Speaking of the line, people have to wait outside, right? How do you handle that in winter?
There's not a lot we can do and since the building was built in 1925 it's a historical landmark, we can't add anything to it. We just try to accommodate people as quickly as possible. We suggest people go down the street to have a drink and come back. Lines aren't always a great thing to have, but we want people to come in and experience the Bedford to the fullest.
Will you take someone's number and call them when it's their turn?
If someone wants to be put on a wait list for a table we can take their number and call or text them about five or 10 minutes out.
Tell me about your favorite customers, whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
We have a great clientele from the surrounding Wicker Park area. That's a lot of fun and we're building a friendship with these people. I like seeing the same faces and also being able to introduce new things to them. And I like people who are willing to be experimental and try new things.
What about celebrities? The Bedford seems to have its share.
I think the reality is that they're people just like you and I. We'll treat them like any other guest. They don't need to be put on a pedestal. We had David Arquette in; he was super cool and just hung out at the bar. We treat them normally; it's how they'd want to be treated.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
I don't think we really have any VIPs. We really accommodate anyone. Even some of our investors are really understanding and knew from the beginning that we're trying to build this neighborhood establishment that caters to everyone. For the most part people are treated equally.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
After being in this industry for so long I just forget about some of these things. I know one thing that we couldn't do was someone asked our chef [Mark Steuer] to have a burger half done medium and half done medium well. Sometimes you're just unable to get some things done.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
Our door staff is really good at being charming and witty. It's not an easy job out there. People can wait out there for 25 to 30 minutes and can get upset and ornery. If you can talk to them on a one-to-one basis and not be rude, just being able to talk to them and be charming and cool. And that goes for me, too. When I'm out there I try to accommodate people and I listen to their requests and explain the situation. [I try to have] patience and charm.
When you're not at the Bedford, where are you eating?
I usually stay in the area. I like Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square. I go to Bangers & Lace, Bar DeVille, the Whistler. I just went to Telegraph and Owen & Engine. For the most part, I'm in this general area.
For more Gatekeepers published today from across the Eater Universe, head over to Eater National.