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GM Dustin Heilmann Chats About the Crowds at One Off's Nico Osteria

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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.

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[Photos: Timothy Hiatt]

Every restaurant One Off Hospitality opens seems to turn to gold, and Nico Osteria is no exception. The combination of exceptional food and drink, a swanky buildout in the Thompson Hotel, and the Gold Coast locale led Nico from sizable pre-opening hype to a continuous stream of accolades after opening, most recently named one of GQ's best new restaurants in America.

General manager Dustin Heilmann guides the restaurant through much of this. On the day of the interview, he took care of the Governor of Wisconsin before chatting about the perpetually-booked dining room, celebrities, and how to get a table at Nico Osteria.

How busy has it been?
We're all very humbled from the reaction. With the exception of that one Monday when it was minus-20 degrees, our dining room has been at max capacity at 7 p.m. every night. We're doing well.

When you say max capacity, how many covers do you for dinner?
300 people on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. The dining room only seats 106 people. There's a lot of menu to get through and a lot of people are only coming to see us once and trying a little bit of everything, so we're having a longer dining experience than everyone envisioned.

Do you get a lot of squatters that sit at tables for a long time?
I wouldn't say squatting because there are five sections to our menu and our kitchen staff is excited and really engaged with all of our customers. On Saturday, four tickets in a row were six courses each.

How far out are you booked for dinners?
(On) Wednesdays through Saturdays (we're booked) through mid-April at the prime time slots. I tell all of the neighbors and I preach to our staff that if you give us a few days notice and with that chef counter we have, we can usually find something for you or make something happen. Or sitting in the salone or the upstairs bar, we can do that too.

Say it's 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday, is there any hope for a walk-in table?
Believe it or not, you have a better chance if you have a larger party. We have two beautiful round tables that sit right in the corner at Bellevue and Rush, those can only get booked one to two times a night, if booked correctly. We're booked for four-tops and two-tops for the next three months, but there will be that eight-top that we can use for six or more.

How is the lounge and bar going?
The salone is first-come first-serve and is offering the full menu. That's been really well received. There's a lot of nooks and crannies and they can sit in the lobby and enjoy one of Matty's cocktails. It's a lot of fun with the fireplace in there. As long as you don't lose track of them, they always have a great time. When there's street traffic or a big shopping day, that'll be filled up.

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What is the percentage of customers that are serious fans, people from the hotel, and neighborhood?
I would say cut the pie in thirds. 33 percent are very familiar with One Off Hospitality or fans of Paul; 33 percent walk in blindly and really have no idea; then we get a third from the neighborhood crowd. There are people who understand what we do and people who have a blank canvas and are blown away by what we're doing. Also the guys from Tavern and Gibson's are here all the time for lunch.

Do people offer anything to get a table?
They do, but since day one I've been very proactive, but people want to give you something for the service on the way out. Once you do that for somebody once, when do you then tell them no?

You talked about the Governor of Wisconsin, have you had a lot of other celebrities and politicians there?
I think every chef in town has come in. I couldn't even begin to list them, you name it and they're here. A lot of musical acts and a lot of television stars find their way in. They really want to be anonymous and they all love to sit at that chef's counter because their back is to the dining room and it's a great experience with the line cooks. We had a couple of celebrities rent out our private room for two when it's made for 20, which is neat.

How has breakfast, lunch, and brunch been?
Brunch has gotten 50 percent bigger each weekend and we served over 450 guests this week. The people that come in for lunch are like, "forget those long waits later, let's just come in for lunch."

Is it easier to get a table then?
Brunch is slowly starting to get up there, we're having 80-90 reservations. It's not really a brunch destination, just a destination in itself.

Where do you like to go when you're not at Nico?
I live in Fulton Market; I really like La Sirena (Clandestina). It's laid back and the food's really good. But I also like our friends in our other restaurants. I go to Au Cheval a lot as well.

Any advice for people who are trying to get a table?
Be persistent, call, and be honest with what you're expecting. I've had to say no to a lot of people I never thought I'd say no to. It's not a matter of seating you, it's a matter of being consistent with the food and delivery time. Talk to your host, talk to your manager, and go over the options. If you walk in here before 5:30 p.m. with a party of two you can always sit at the chef's counter. These line cooks love to share their knowledge, you're face to face with the whole first page of our menu and you can see what goes in it.
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Nico Osteria

1015 North Rush Street, , IL 60611 (312) 994-7100 Visit Website

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