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.
Ivan Madera [Photo: Tim Hiatt]
Ivan Madera began his career in the hotel side of things, working at the Four Seasons Chicago and went through the management training program before moving down to the warmer climes of Miami. There he worked at the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton before realizing he wanted to make a change. He got the itch to get into the nightlife scene and, knowing promoter Matt Deichl, moved back to Chicago to help him open Cuvee.
During his two-year run helping elevate the club scene, Madera struck up a friendship with Mercadito partner Alfredo Sandoval, who persuaded Madera to join the opening team at Tavernita. Madera trained at Mercadito in Miami before returning north to first serve as general manager at Mercadito while Tavernita was being built out. He now oversees both restaurants. Madera never saw himself back in the restaurant world, but truly loves coming to work every day with this crew. "It's a family and it's something you don't find too often," he said. "I could easily go back into hotels, but this is where I belong."
It's 8 p.m. Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
I'd say it's about 45 to 60 minutes and we try to accommodate every guest as efficiently as possible. We try to be honest with people, too. It's usually no more than 45 minutes. We are a good-sized restaurant with 200 seats and have Barcito and can put people there if need be.
What about just sitting at the bar—can people eat there?
Yes, of course. As everyone walks in, we tell people that both bars are full service: the main bar and at Barcito where it's pintxo style. We market that separately from Tavernita.
Is Barcito a totally separate entity and can people reserve a spot there?
It's first come first served, but we do try to enhance our customers' experience. If they're patient with us, we'll try to get them a table. We do have a manager in Barcito and can manage the tables in there.
What about the upper-level lounge area?
The lounge is an extension of the dining room. All the reservations each night, about half go in the lounge so it's not a first-come first-served basis.
I thought that space was supposed to convert into a late-night lounge, no?
We're still in the process of finishing the lounge, but we don't want to lose focus on the main dining room. We have opened it up for some parties and we're waiting to pull the trigger on that.
How hard is it to get a reservation on busier nights?
It's definitely difficult for prime times, but if it wasn't hard we wouldn't be having this conversation right? During prime time, we recommend booking two to three weeks in advance.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
[laughs] Honestly? No. A great attitude and patience always helps. When you have a customer that understands we're busy we do our best to accommodate them. If someone comes in all mad, we'll still take care of them, but dealing with someone ... there have been customers that try to give us like $40 or $100, but we're not going to put them up to the front of the list.
So do you keep the money?
If someone gives the host money, I say it's for good service.
What about people who try to say they're friends of [chef] Ryan Poli?
We definitely try to accommodate everyone and we deal with this on a daily basis. They'll also drop Alfredo's name or my name, and we're in the business of making people happy, but if the whole restaurant is sat, there's not much we can do until it becomes available.
Tell me about your favorite types of customers.
I don't want to say I have a favorite. I like dealing with a diverse crowd, but I like having someone walk out having had an amazing experience that we made happen. I love people who are walking home that they feel they were somewhere different and that we wowed them. We're wowing them with the architecture, drinks and food and we have to wow them with the service. That's my favorite kind of customer.
Do any celebrities hit Tavernita?
We definitely get higher profile guests, but we don't expose it. That's what's also nice that attracts people. We want people to feel comfortable here.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
We try to accommodate everyone and we deal with that. But sometimes it's a win situation and sometimes we lose. If someone comes in last minute and we're 20 reservations deep we'll do what we can, but we have other customers as well. We try to get as much information as possible and we know who our regulars are and we can reach out to them if we think they're coming in. People usually give us a heads up that night.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
After having been in the hospitality business for so long, there's no such things as a strange request. There are times that I've been on a private jet to Vegas or I'm opening a restaurant. As far as strange, I'm immune to that word.
Have you really just hopped on a jet with someone?
Yes, multiple times, but I can't say who. These are clients that can do anything at any time. Just for the night and I'm back at work the next.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
It's really not an issue. I pretty much have been able—as long as it's legal—I'm able to take care of everyone's request. There's really nothing I have not seen already.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
My team; I'm only as strong as they are. They're my backbone. They help me keep the ball rolling. We wouldn't be as successful as we are. That's my manager, that's Ryan being an amazing chef, that's the front of house working well with the back of house. And even the owners ... we all work as one team.
When you're not at Tavernita, where are you drinking and eating?
I can't specify one place because I like to go out to new places. I've been to many places around the city because I like to see what's going on in the industry. I do bounce around a lot.