Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Dave Johnston [Photo: Tim Hiatt]
Even though Dave Johnston had a pretty cush job as the GM and wine director for the award-winning Everest, he had told his wife that if he ever got the chance to work with the team behind the Bristol, which was his favorite restaurant in Chicago, he'd jump. Even though he was totally happy at Everest and wasn't looking for a job, he got a call from a recruiter one day, who actually called him fairly often, and said a restaurant was looking for a manager. He wasn't interested until he found out it was the Bristol so he had her set up a call. It didn't take long for him to make a move (after six years, no less) and has been with the four-year-old Bucktown hotspot since October of 2011.
So for the first three years or so, the restaurant didn't take reservations. How was that?
I was here as a regular guest and I was used to waiting and hour and a half for a table at 6:30 on a Friday night. We started taking reservations though Open Table three days after I started. We still have long waits some times.
How have things change since adding reservations?
For the most part, I think our guests see it as extremely positive especially people who have to drive 40 minutes into the city and wait another two hours for a table. We were missing out on those people. Now they can make a reservation and can come right in for the most part. Some of our regulars don't like that we take reservations because they feel like it's harder to get in. But now you can be seated faster.
It's 8 p.m. Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
Not too bad. I'd say an hour and a half to two hours—well, I guess that's still pretty bad [laughs]. We do book the weekends up completely, but we want to accommodate walk-ins and tell people it can be up to two or three hours, but it sometimes is 45 minutes because people cancel. There have been nights we have had to quote people three-and-a-half hours because we're booked solid.
After four years that's pretty amazing.
We're so thankful and blessed. We're not a downtown, clubby or see-and-be-seen restaurant. People come here for the hospitality and the food and we're thankful for that everyday.
Other than going up to the two bars to order a drink, are there any other first-come, first-serve seats in the space?
There aren't. If we have an open table that we feel we can seat, we will. As far as walk-ins go, the wait for the bar is shorter and we do use that for dining. The upstairs bar only has four seats and we use that for guests waiting for a table. We do try and take reservations that will fill us up. Sometimes we'll send people to bars in the neighborhood and we'll call their cell when the table is ready. We'll try to make their wait as hospitable as possible. We'll get them drinks and send them out duck-fat fries because we know they're hungry. We try to keep them here as much as we can because it can be a hassle to walk around and find a place. That's usually for reservations we're running behind on. If you're a walk in, we'll send you to the Charleston, Danny's or Burke's Web around the corner and call you when your table is ready.
Is it still pretty hard to get a reservation on busier nights?
I would say for prime time you need to make a reservation two weeks out for like 7 to 8:30. That fills up extremely fast. You can get reservations early and late day off. We're busy every night between 7 and 8. Maybe sometimes we have a 20 to 30 minute wait.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
[Laughs]. Uh, no. We can't do that. Everyone gets treated equally at the door no matter who you are. We don't make any special allowances. As tempting as it could be ...
Tell me about your favorite customers—whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
We get so many different kinds of customers. When I was a regular I didn't pay attention to the clientele. When I started working, I was surprised at how diverse the client is. We get hipsters, college kids, older wine-savvy people. We get people who love the atmosphere and dine around the city and talk about their experiences at other restaurants like Alinea, Tru and other great places. It's a really wine-savvy crowd. I thought of this place as a beer place, but wine outsells beer everyday. I just redid the wine list in June and went from 60 bottles to about 200. It's a fun list.
What's the focus of the wine list?
The focus of the food is this idea of American food influenced by Mediterranean countries. I tried to focus the list on those regions. We have a great selection of California and also South of France, Greek, Lebanese, etc. No South America, Australia or New Zealand. I love those wines, but I wanted to focus on what we do well.
The Bristol has gotten a lot of national attention. Do you get celebrities coming in to dine?
Any chef that comes to town—to me they're celebrities—we find them in our dining room, which is a huge honor. We do get some people from Saturday Night Live; if they're shooting a movie here we get actors. Ty Burrell was in at the bar. Tim Meadows was in. Nora Dunn has been in 5 or 6 times.
Grant [Achatz] comes in pretty often for brunch or dinner. Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller, John Besh, Chris Cosentino ... I'm pretty sure Anthony Bourdain has been in. Anyone who comes to Chicago.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
We try and get them in as quickly as possible, but we don't put them in before anyone else. We do bust our asses to make sure we get them in—even to the bar and get a drink. Our regulars are awesome and they know waiting is a part of this restaurant. We've had a lot of great press and word of mouth and we try to live up that even during the wait.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
We don't get too many ... we're lucky. Our guests are pretty down to earth. I can't think of a single interesting thing to tell you.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
Sometimes we have guests, especially regulars, and we're known for snout-to-tail cooking. We like to have certain things for some regulars. We have two in particular who always love offal and we try to have bits and pieces in the house for them.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
It sounds really hokey, but a smile. You have to be happy to receive your guests. You have to be genuinely happy to receive them every day. It's a huge compliment that they're coming to your restaurant. Beyond that ... Open table. Gotta have it to keep good notes on your guests.
When you're not at Bristol, where are you drinking and eating?
My wife and I dine out as much as possible. I love Yusho. It's fantastic and their cocktails are unbelievably good. I live in Logan Square and like to go to Longman & Eagle. It's a fun place and great for after work. I love all the Boka restaurants and they treat me extremely well. GT [Fish & Oyster], Balena and Perennial Virant we've been to a few times. And I love Shaw's, the oyster bar for lunch.