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.
[Photo: Barry Brecheisen]
Before opening Tortoise Club six weeks ago, owner Keene Addington was founder and company leader of the local 14-location chain Flat Top Grill. He decided to sell in 2009 to return to his love of being a restauranteur, designing Tortoise Club as the type of place he personally loves: A classy but not stuffy, fun, comfortable restaurant and bar with a palpable love of Chicago, serving traditional American cuisine at the highest level. Chicago seems to have similar taste, as Tortoise Club is enjoying an early boom. A lifelong Chicagoan, Addington spoke with Eater about the wait, the Chicago focus, and the business and clientele thus far.
You've been open for six weeks now. How is it going so far?
Well. Very, very well. Beyond my best hopes. The business has been very strong. The feedback from the guests, whether it's personal to me or feedback online and Yelp reviews, has been extremely positive. That's substantiated by the number of people that have come in two-three-four times in such a short amount of time.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
Up to two, two-and-a-half hours. We have 200 seats here, we save 50 of those for walk-in guests, so we do not book every single table in the restaurant. That being said, if you're willing to be a little flexible we can usually find a way to accommodate you.
Do customers ever try to do anything, like give you anything, to get a table from you?
That has not happened here at all, yet. Maybe it will, but we would not accept anything like that and we've actually trained our hostesses that everyone is equal and therefore because someone tries to slide you $50 or $100 to get a table, that doesn't work here. A friend of mine used to go to Centro on Wells and would always slide the maitre 'd something very large and he would always get in. It would benefit me because I would be with him sometimes but it was always a turnoff. All these other people that had gotten there before or tried to call on the telephone and make reservations, they couldn't get a table. Then all of a sudden this guy comes in and slides a little extra money. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Do people get mad or sulk when they hear about the wait?
There are some people that are disappointed, clearly. In general people understand. At the end of the day I think there's something attractive and sexy about a restaurant that has a big wait. This happens to me, I tried to get into Girl and the Goat for forever and couldn't get in but it didn't mean I gave up. It made it more appealing to me to try and find a time for my schedule as well as the restaurants'. The immediate disappointment is there but over the long term I think guests will make another attempt and plan accordingly.
Where can people go for a walk-in if there's not a table?
There is the lounge and the bar, which is completely first-come-first-served. And we save 20 percent of our tables for walk-ins.
What type of customers have you been getting so far?
It's very interesting because it's been a very mixed variety, which I think is fantastic and a little bit surprising. It's a sophisticated place – we don't have TVs in here, it's conversation-friendly for the most part. The restaurant is really geared to 35 to 55-year-old sophisticated, mature audience. Having said that, the amount of twenty-somethings that have been in the restaurant has been surprising to me and made me extremely happy. When I go to a restaurant I want to be able to have a conversation, but I'm finding that the 28-year-old professional wants the same thing. They'll go out to the sports bars where they have the TV's and the loud music but there also is room in their entertainment budget to go to a place like this. They enjoy the live jazz – it's not the show of the restaurant, it's an accoutrement to the restaurant.
Do you have a favorite type of person you like to see in the restaurant?
Someone who's happy to be here. When someone comes in and says "this feels so comfortable" or "I really enjoyed my food" or "they service was so nice and accommodating." What I really love is when a table of four comes in and they don't want to leave so they settle up their check and go into the lounge and hear the music and have a nightcap. They're coming off the street and almost being transformed to a more comfortable place.
Do people wander all around and look at all the décor and music when they're waiting?
The good news is yes, and also the good news is that hasn't been a problem. People do wander around and like to look at all the pictures of these great old prints of different Chicago scenes from the mid-to-late 1800s. People enjoy walking around looking at that stuff and the caricatures. At the bottom is a plaque of a person's name and there's also a QR code in the corner where you can put your iPhone up to the code and get the story on who this interesting Chicago person was. So far it has not gotten in the other guests' way. The greater majority go into the lounge for a drink and ultimately if they're waiting a long period of time they end up dining in there.
What's the one tool you need to keep people happy while they're waiting?
The number one tool in my opinion for anybody, not just us at The Tortoise Club, is communication. If we tell the guests there's a two-and-a-half-hour wait and there's no seats in the lounge whatsoever, the more we can communicate with them and say "hey, it looks like we can get you a lounge table in the next five or ten minutes" and the more we can help them and guide them into a seat, and once they're in their seat if we say "we told you two-and-a-half-hours but we're a little ahead of schedule." On the bad side, sometimes we quote a half-hour wait and it ends up being 45 minutes. The worst a restaurant can do is hope the guest doesn't come up and ask where their table is, the best thing is to go up and tell them it's going to be another 15 minutes and offer them a drink. There's no exact science to this and to me it's all about communication and providing them with hospitality and showing general concern and care.
When you're not at The Tortoise Club, what do you enjoy doing around town?
Bizarrely, I love going to restaurants, especially those that have good bars. I'm not a big bar guy, but I love restaurants that have a good one whether in the dining room or a bar itself. I'm very active also and I do enjoy traveling.