Heading up any busy restaurant is never an easy task. It takes top-notch skills, patience and a great mind for multi-tasking and organization. But when you are the general manager of Girl & The Goat, you also need a sense of humor, especially working with chef Stephanie Izard. Fortunately for Tony Cournia, he possesses all of these skills.
Cournia spent nearly 10 years with Lettuce Entertain You, culminating his tenure with them running the room at L20. After the restaurant received three Michelin stars, Cournia headed to New York to work as the service director at Per Se with Thomas Keller. But after a while, this Midwestern guy felt the call back home, where he consulted on a few projects, including a very short stint with the Black Sheep (pre-opening) and then with Randy Zweiban at Province. It wasn't long before Boka Restaurant Group partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz dropped him a line to gauge his interest in being GM at the Goat. It didn't take much for him to say yes.
Why did you want to work at the Goat after all your fine-dining experience?
It was an interesting change. For me, it's about hospitality, whether you're at a 3-star Michelin or a Bib Gourmand, it's about taking care of the guests and creating opportunities where you can. As long as I'm with a group and a chef that's hospitality driven, it's kind of the same. The affection for Girl and the Goat and Stephanie, she's a wonderful woman and her food is amazing. What she encourages with the staff is really to have fun—while at work, with the guests, during service. You get that vibe that it's a fun place and that permeates throughout the place.
It's 8pm Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
Typically in the dining room, two hours. But we do take walk-ins in the lounge and in the bar. And we really do our best to try and get people seats and explain how there's the lounge and bar and they turn over much more quickly. In the dining room, the turnaround is about two hours.
It's pretty hard to get into the restaurant. How far out do people need to make reservations?
We are booking out for prime time—between 6 and 9—on weekends right now in September. For weekdays, we're booking in July. That's prime time, but if you have flexibility, we may have a reservation 48 hours ahead of time. People make them so far in advance, that things may have changed. Sometimes reservations may pop up in that 48-hour window. People may be pleasantly surprised if they call.
Can people who walk in eat at the bar or in the lounge?
We do the same exact menu and service. We have a server and assistant in the lounge just like in the dining room. The bartenders are all well versed in the food and beverage, too. It's the same service. A lot of times, you'll look in the bar and lounge and sometimes everyone is eating.
What's the most outrageous request you've heard from fans of Stephanie?
Nothing really crazy. A lot of times people want to take her home, and there are comments about her hair. But nothing really stands out. She's really great with the people and people will want autographs, like signed menus or cookbooks, but nothing too crazy.
Um ... take her home?!
[Laughs.] Not in a creepy way, but that they want to take her home because she's so sweet and have her cook for them.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
No, as a matter of fact, we have a policy we don't accept money for tables.
Do people try?
Oh yeah. We explain that everyone is entitled to a table equally and that it's not fair to put someone ahead because of cash or whatever they may offer. People oftentimes will offer $100. One guy one night said he'd give us $1,000 for a table. But we just said, "Sorry, we just don't do that." We really want to take care of as many guests who want to be in the dining room.
Tell me about your favorite type of customers?
I just love it when people come in to have fun and are so exited to be here. I try to talk to all of the tables every night. It really makes all the time that we spend in the restaurant worthwhile when you can create an experience that's memorable.
What about celebrities? I know the Goat attracts big name people. How do you deal with them when the restaurant is always so busy?
I tried to get a table for William H. Macy, but I just couldn't make it happen. I felt really bad; I love him as an actor. I literally could not get him in. It comes down to how many reservations we have on the books. I won't bump someone who made reservations three or four months ago. It's just not fair. But we do get a fair amount of celebrities.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
We'll try to squeeze them into the lounge and try to make something happen. With running a room as large as Girl & The Goat, we have some wiggle room in the seating, that's how we're able to accommodate walk-ins and try to squeeze someone in that way. But, sometimes we just can't make it happen.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
We don't really do to-go food, as our food is composed and intended to be eaten in the dining room. We had someone who made a reservation a number of months ago for a special occasion. One [person] in their party was diagnosed with something severe and had to go to the hospital. They explained that and we essentially did a meal for them to enjoy in the hospital. It was pretty cool.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
Not that I can think of. A lot of times people have dietary restrictions, which can limit the options. But we do have a vegan menu and can do vegetarian things and non-dairy and gluten free. But there's been nothing off the wall I can think of. I guess our guests are pretty normal.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
Warmth. We have people that really want to dine here. I can never lose sight of that or take that for granted or not realize that for most of the people coming in it's a special occasion. Or they just may be foodies and are [excited] to be coming in. That's just the tool that always has to be in the forefront: always being super hospitable and warm to someone. You have to be warm, courteous and polite.
When you're not at The Goat, where are you eating and drinking?
Right now, I like Au Cheval. It's really close. It's easy for me. There's a couple of really great drinks they make at Maude's. The Juliet and Romeo is ridiculous; it's probably my favorite drink in the city. I love avec and Publican Quality Meats for lunch is probably my favorite lunch spot right now.
· All Girl & The Goat Coverage on Eater Chicago [~EChi~]
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