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.
Reuben Tockman [Photo: Kari Skaflen]
Reuben Tockman more or less landed his gig as general manager of Maude's Liquor Bar out of luck—and hard work. After working jobs in restaurants and bars in his college town of Bloomington, Ind., this St. Louis native moved up to Chicago and got his feet wet in the local restaurant industry. He got a job tending bar at Gilt Bar and eventually started picking up some part-time managing shifts. When the position opened up at Maude's, he actually didn't put himself up for the gig despite wanting it. It didn't matter, because owner Brendan Sodikoff saw the potential for him to lead the staff at this now super-hot West Loop eatery and asked if he'd want to be the GM. The rest is history.
It's 8 p.m. Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
The wait time, it's really hard to say. It can be anywhere from 45 minutes up to two hours. We try to be as honest with people as possible if they just walk in. We want everyone to be seated and because it's a small restaurant we have very limited walk-in tables. We usually do our best though. Generally on a Saturday night we can do about 150 to 160 walk-ins.
How do people react to the long wait times?
People react to the time differently. Sometimes they're understanding and other times they look around and see empty tables and don't understand. We have a wait list every night and whether you want drinks or dinner, we'll take your number and call you if you go somewhere else. We always recommend putting yourself on the wait list and if people put themselves on, they often don't come back so it opens up quickly.
Can people who walk in just hang out in the bar area?
Absolutely. But, we do want to make sure we have room at the bar for any of our reservations if they come in early or if we're running behind on a reservation. We want to make sure they have space at the bar.
So do you tell walk-ins then they have to make space?
We'll never tell anyone ever to move. If you come into the restaurant we'll never ask you to move or leave. We'll try to accommodate and make enough room. If need be, I'l take drink orders. It does tend to get pretty crowded in there.
And there's really no way people can hang out at the upstairs bar, right?
We do have a few walk-in tables up there, but it's a seated room only. That bar is a service bar only. Two-thirds of the tables there are reservations, but we can accommodate a few walk-ins up there.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
Generally, no. We don't accept any cash or anything like that. We have people who try to do it and we have people who seem to really love to name drop at this restaurant. Name dropping will get you nowhere. Best thing you can do is to be courteous with the hosts and other guests and we'll be as patient with you as well. We won't tell you it's going to be a few minutes if it's going to be more that that.
Talk about your favorite customers—whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
Having only been open for seven months it's awesome the amount of regulars we have—some people come in four to five nights a week. It's been great to be able to connect with those people who tell us this is their favorite place. I love anyone who can come in, get the whole experience and try some food that may be off the radar of what they usually eat. Generally, it's guests who can come in, sit down and have a great time and engage with the staff and have an overall fun experience.
Any notable celebrities dropping by Maude's?
We really haven't any celebrities in. Rahm Emanuel has been in a couple of times. First time he sat on the patio, second time he sat upstairs. One night, John Cusack drove up with like five guys on Vespas. They walked in and looked around. He looked into our elevator and asked if that was our patio. They went outside, smoked some cigarettes and then kind of left. They just checked out the restaurant and got on their Vespas and drove away.
So kind of like the John Cusack Vespa gang?
We were joking about that the enrire night.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
The majority of our VIPs, we know they're coming. [Chef] Jeff [Pikus] and I look through the books and we'll recognize names. Obviously we're as accommodating to them as we are to anyone else and we'll try our best to get them into the restaurant. We've been pretty lucky that they're understanding if they call and we can't get them in.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
Most of the requests have been with food. One lady came in one night and she had an allergy card that her doctor gave her. And she had numerous cards; it was everything under the sun. In my personal opinion, I didn't think she'd be able to eat here, but I brought it up to Jeff and he figured out some things she could actually eat. Something like that is scary because you have to be extremely careful.
That doesn't seem that strange, anything else?
Another guy came in and sat down and asked the server if he could have bacon and eggs. It was one of the most ridiculous food requests I've ever heard. It's nothing close to anything we had, but Jeff grilled up some pork belly and some soft-boiled eggs, but it's not something we want to do every day. We want to make people happy. It was the eggs we put on Lyonnaise salad. His thing was that, "Well I'm at a bistro so I should be able to get bacon and eggs." I don't consider us a bistro. It's crazy sometimes, what people want and think they can do. We talked about it for a few days after.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
Just a normal request on a Friday or Saturday night when a group of 20 people walk in. Or a bachelorette party of 15 walks in and we can't accommodate them. We have one large table that can't even accommodate that amount of people, it's just physically impossible. For the most part, we've done a good job of accommodating people's requests.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
I think patience is a huge thing. Knowing that the restaurant is going to get extremely busy and the night isn't going to go perfect every night. Just being able to be patient with guests and understanding the different types of personalities you'll deal with every night—each person will walk through the door with a different personality and you have to adjust your understanding of how to deal with each person. At the end, they're leaving happy and having had a good experience. It's organized chaos; it happens every night. The important thing is to be organized. I couldn't do it without my staff. They're amazing. I couldn't and don't do it on my own. Everyone works so well together. And being honest with guests no matter what is extremely important. It'll make their experience that much better.
When you're not at Maude's, where are you eating?
Arami is definitely my favorite sushi place here in Chicago. I love avec, Kuma's, Three Aces for a burger. I go to Local Option in Lincoln Park just to have a beer. And The Bristol for brunch. I'd go to Gilt Bar if it wasn't open the same nights we are.