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.
Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Ben Fasman [Photo: Tim Hiatt]
Try to hit Big Star, the One Off Hospitality Group's honky tonk taqueria in the heart of Wicker Park, and you'll likely have a wait—unless you go at lunch on a Tuesday. And you still may wait. The place teems with hipsters and families from the neighborhood, all coming in for inexpensive high-quality tacos while downing $3 whiskey shots and kicking back with a can of Tecate or a bottled craft beer. Eater caught up with former freelance writer Ben Fasman and former full-time touring musician Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, both now co-managers and co-beverage directors here, about what it's like to get a table at Big Star on a busy night.
It's 8pm Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
BF: I'd say it's about two hours.
LL: On a Saturday, especially now since it's beautiful, there's a lot of people who want to sit outside and enjoy the weather. There's pretty much always a wait within 45 minutes to an hour of [the bar] opening.
BF: It fluctuates. People want to hang out and sit for hours and hours. Sometimes we turn over tables insanely fast. We may quote you two hours, but it can become 20 minutes.
LL: We always try to determine whether people want to sit outside, is there a dog, are they with their family. The bar is the same program and great food and drinks and you can find space in there a little easier and if people are willing to work with us they can get a space faster.
OK, but it also gets crazy during the day. So it's 1 p.m. on a Friday – what's the wait?
BF: Even our busiest weekdays ... any day of the week at 1 [o'clock] you'll get a table really quickly. Maybe 15-20 minutes if there's one not already open. On weekdays, people are coming in for lunch and then taking off. Monday through Friday before 7 p.m. you'll wait for a minimal time. The turnover is fast.
LL: Big Star during the workweek is totally available, more so than people probably think.
BF: We just came from there just now and there are plenty of open bar seats and tables. The flow is so much faster. It's not dead; people are still eating.
Can people ever get a reservation or is it always first come?
BF: It's pretty much always first come first served. If there's anything we can do to accommodate guests we do. We've had situations where someone will come in at noon and say it's their birthday and want to come back with some friends at 7 and can something be held. We'll do the best we can. If people are waiting 2 hours at 7 p.m. that night, we can't make them wait for someone at a place we don't take reservations. We tell people we do the best we can. If you can put down a plate somewhere, however, we will serve you—ledges, barrels. Generally we do not accept reservations.
LL: We try to approach every situation with our guests and what their needs are with flexibility and timeliness. We'll make it work.
You mentioned eating at ledges and barrels. Are there more spots like this and how many?
BF: The ledges, barrels and every seat at the bar – you're talking like 60 open seats that are first come. The bar rotation is infinitely faster than the tables.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
LL: No, but just working with us and letting us know how we can make your night smoother—just working in tandem as a team, that's what we work toward.
What happens when a VIP shows up and walks to the front of a long-ass line?
BF: With people like that, if they're friends of Paul's [Kahan] and Donnie's [Madia], etc, if there are no tables right then, we'll usher them into the bar and find them a spot, get them a round of drinks and ask them to be patient with us. There are a lot of people who put their name in for a table and walk around the neighborhood and find somewhere else to eat. We'll have five pages of names we'll call back and often times those people don't pick up. If the owners come in, they get first pick. All of our owners, their friends they send in, they know the deal. We've had plenty of famous chefs come in who are perfectly happy to have a shot and a beer while they wait for a table. Just about all of them have been super cool with our program and can hang at the bar.
LL: People come to Big Star for a particular experience that we're providing. For that reason it's special. The people who are coming there are looking for that type of ambiance, which on some nights can be rowdy and rambunctious.
Big Star draws a pretty hipster heavy crowd but gets a good mix of people. Who are your favorite types of customers?
LL: I think people who are happy and want to have a good time. That's the thing we always talk about with our staff: Have a good time and be in it.
BF: And people who are open. We don't have a lot of things people ask for. We can't make steak tacos or burritos. We can't make a vodka cranberry because we don't have cranberry juice. We'll tell them we'll make them something they like. And those types of people who are open to new experiences are my favorites to deal with. And we get our regulars who only drink the higher-end mezcals or get a $2 beer and a $3 shot and then leave.
LL: My favorite probably has to be the person who asks what [music] is on right now. You bring it to them and they say it's so cool and they write it down.
You mentioned famous chefs—who has been in and what about other celebrities?
BF: Mario Batali has been in a bunch of times. David Chang I believe has been in. Rick Bayless lives in the neighborhood and he and his family come in a bunch
LL: My Morning Jacket. A lot of music talent comes through especially with the Double Door and Empty Bottle nearby. It's a good place to hang out if you're in to music, which is a central [focus] of Big Star.
BF: Music is a central focus to the concept of the bar and people who bring in records for the bar are pretty serious record collectors.
LL: Yo La Tengo has DJ'd and hung out
BF: Tortoise comes in a bunch; one of our friends does sound for Sonic Youth and has brought them in.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
BF: There have been really sizable orders that we've been hit with. Every single one of those tortillas you're eating is made in back by a very hard working lady. A woman came up to the to-go window and ordered 170 tacos to go. It's a challenge, but we made it happen. [Chef de cuisine] Justin Large came up with the DIY taco program, which was to accommodate that. The amount of food that was coming out of the to-go window was pretty shocking to us. We do our best to accommodate them. It sometimes can be difficult to keep up but I don't think we've turned down any requests.
LL: If someone wants a drink with muddled fruit I know we can get our hands on, we can make it work.
BF: We've had some cocktail requests that have been different from the scope that we do there. Our cocktail program is slimmed down. We've had requests for an aquavit egg white cocktail and we are owned by the same people who own Violet Hour so we can go across the street.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
LL: People ask for things that aren't on the menu or anywhere in the building. You get more requests for steak tacos on any given day.
BF: Or that we don't have flavored vodkas or orange juice or cranberry juice. There are cases where I don't have that, but I can make something that's similar. There are plenty of other places in the neighborhood where you can get a Stoli cranberry, but we'll do our best to accommodate people. We are dedicated to our program and we think it's great.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
BF: I'd say our staff. Especially at the front door. Our door guys and hostesses ... it's really tough to tell people who've driven in from the suburbs to tell them they'll be waiting for two hours. They get bombarded with a lot of requests and unhappy people and our door staff is diligent and unflappable and it's great to watch them work. Our bar staff too. We try to keep things fun and interesting for them by brining in new product, taking them on trips to bourbon distilleries, etc.
LL: That's both front and back of house. If you think about how much food is produced ... it's unbelievable. It's very much a machine and the connectivity between front and back is super important. It's like a family. Everyone is really tight there. I'm impressed with how much we all spend with each other outside of work.
When you're not at Big Star, where are you eating and drinking?
BF: Honestly, and I know it's in our company, but I think we both are super into beer and we've made beer with a bunch of breweries and we love the beer lineup at the Publican.
LL: The Beachwood is on our radar. The Rainbow gets hit, too.
BF: I live near Danny's so I end up there a little bit. The Aberdeen Tap we go to quite a bit.
LL: It sounds like there's a lot of drinking and not much eating going on.
BF: It runs the gamut. I was at Next not long ago and I love ordering the pan pizza from Pequod's so everything in between.