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.
Katie Syracopoulos has spent time working in some of Chicago's best restaurants with some of the top chefs and restaurateurs, including Alinea, Tru, the Boka Restaurant Group, L20 and now the Blackbird group. She signed on with this latest group in the summer of 2008, working at both Blackbird and avec in preparation for the opening of The Publican, where she has been ever since. She served on the opening team as assistant manager and, as of June 1, was named general manager. However, not a fan of the term "manager," she calls herself the Publican General.
It's 8 p.m. on Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
Typically anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half depending on the party size.
What about walk ins?
They're always welcome. The nine bar seats are available on a first-come basis for walk ins and we continue to rotate those. in summer, our outdoor cafe is seated on a first-come, first-served basis. We don't necessarily take a reservation for the patio but we always accept requests because we can't predict the weather. All other parties are accommodated based on a reservation finishing up earlier or if there are changes in party size, which does happen.
Can people just hang out in the bar area?
Absolutely. They can come in and just have drinks. There's a bar menu available at those tables. They can come in and drink and snack there and try to wait it out to be seated for dinner or just hang out and leave. It's also a waiting area for reservations as well.
As a customer, Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
[Laughs.] Well, I cannot say yes. There have definitely been gifts, cash or even things like wine. We have found that the most effective practices are those that come after the fact. If someone is accommodated and as a thank you extends something to the host team, that more often is more effective as a way to segue in and get to know the members of the door team as opposed to being someone to push their way ahead of people. It's more frustrating when guests try to offer cash up front. Even if it did work, there's not enough money you can pay off the hosts to piss off the other people in front of them. I'd say that in terms of what we've experienced the gifts of cash are generally declined, at least up front.
Tell me about your favorite customers—whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
My favorite diners are people who aren't afraid to be adventurous and aren't afraid to try new things when it comes to food and beverages. It's always really fun for us to introduce things to people they haven't seen before.
What about celebrities?
We've had quite a few celebrities that have dined with us and our space is very unique, given the fact that we have communal dining. And we're not the type of place that feeds off of the immediate press of trying to put out there on social media that we may have someone dining with us. We can't control any guests dining here if they spot someone. When we do have high profile guests we never acknowledge if someone asks us. But Gwyneth Paltrow wrote that she dined with us. We want them to be able to enjoy a dining experience like every other guest.
Do celebrities get preferred seating in the private tables?
It depends on their preference and their party size. We've had celebrities that have dined with large groups where we have no choice but to seat them on communal tables, but for small parties they are accommodated at the booths or free-standing tables to respect their privacy. Even by putting them at a booth or table it does draw more attention to them.
How do you deal with VIPs when there's no tables left to give?
We welcome them into the bar at the standing tables and try to keep them as comfortable as possible. We might get them a complimentary round of drinks. We let them come in and order beverages if they wish and get them started with a few snacks if they're starving. The same thing goes for if we're runing behind, even 15 minutes behind, on any reservation, something has to come from us. Whether we get their bar bill or a few snacks at the bar or right when they're seated at their table or we'll buy them dessert. We try to stay in contact with people and be honest and let them know what's happening with their table. We don't want to ask anyone to leave. In terms of doing something for our VIP guests, we'll do anything for any of our guests.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
Oh wow. I can think of a lot of things at other restaurants but here is pretty low key.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
One of the most comical ones was someone asking us to write a message on a plate. And we did not end up doing it because it's not our style. Our plates, because of the design and decor, don't lend itself to write a message on a plate because they're all details and wouldn't necessarily show up anyway. And we have a lot of national and international inquiries to mail our pork rinds, but unfortunately they don't have a shelf life to sustain the postal system.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
For lack of a better description, I love cranky guests. I find it invigorating and challenging just to see what I can do and challenge myself to turn a negative situation into something positive. Going back to my favorite guests, a noticeable percentage of guests we consider regulars, they, on their first dining experience, had a negative dining experience—whether it was food or service or it being an off night. We did everything to turn the experiences around and welcome them back in and show them why we're so passionate about why it is what we do. Now some of those people are our most loyal.
When you're not at the Publican, where are you eating?
A lot of that is contingent upon my significant other's taste, but we've lately been eating a quite a bit of Thai food. For a long time I was eating a lot of French food. Some of our favorites are The Bristol, Frontera and Topolobampo, Blackbird, avec, Xoco, TAC Quick and Aroy Thai. GT Fish & Oyster is a new one that's been on our radar frequently.