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GM/Owner Adrienne Lo Talks About the Lines at Fat Rice

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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: Marc Much]

Co-owners and former underground dining stars Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo struck gold with their Portuguese-Chinese fusion concept based on travels on the island of Macau, Fat Rice. The restaurant has been booming since it opened the doors in December 2012 and the lines grow longer with every local or national publication that piles on accolades.

While Lo says she and Conlon are just "doing our thing over here and staying busy," there's obviously much more to it than that.

On a day-to-day basis, how busy is busy?
Fridays and Saturdays there's a line out the door before we open. On Saturdays there's a wait the moment we open our doors, people will wait out in the cold for us to open. It's pretty amazing and kind of crazy. We're closed on Mondays and Tuesdays are kind of like Fridays.

How many covers do you do?
We have about 40 seats and typically we will do 140 people on Fridays and Saturdays and 115 people on Tuesdays. This winter was really bad and we were still consistently busy. We have a lot of regulars, people from the neighborhood that come in, people that come back almost every week. It's very cool.

Has it been this busy since the day you opened or has it gotten busier?
Honestly, we've been pretty busy since we opened in November 2012. The first time we ever had a line was when a Reader article came out; it was definitely cold outside and people were lined up down the street and it was pretty amazing. (Then) we were voted best new restaurant in Time Out that May, then in Bon Appetit in August. When that came out our dining room was full of people from out of town; people travel and wait for a long time to come see you because they've read about you. It's quite unreal.

Did you expect that type of reaction?
We had no idea this was going to happen. We thought we were going to open a little restaurant for the neighborhood. Kind of diner-style, like "this is what you're eating because this is what we have." We're (still) able to do that, we have specials that we run. There's some pretty exotic ingredients people have never heard of yet they taste comfortable and familiar.

How crazy do those lines get? How do they react?
We have had lines of easily over 100 people, which is pretty scary. I remember one service in late spring or early summer: I went outside and took people's names and said "this is where it cuts off, unfortunately you will not make it in the first seating." Then walked down the line and said "alright, that's the second seating, you're now talking about a three-plus-hour wait." Surprisingly a lot of people came back. I'm happy people are committed to coming here and I hate telling people there's a wait like that.

Do people get upset?
There are some people that get upset but what can I do. Luckily we have a waiting area down the street with our full beverage list and snacks and when your table is ready we come and get you. But there are times when I have to say that our waiting room is at capacity so you have to get a drink somewhere else and come back.

What bars do you recommend to the people waiting?
Masa Azul—great cocktails across the street. We send people to Smallbar all the time, great beers. And then we send people to the Square, there's so many restaurants. I've actually joked that people should go see a movie, it would literally take that long. Or get some errands done.

If someone shows up at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, is there any chance they'll get in at all?
There is a chance they'll get in but it's actually better to come in at 9:30 p.m.; you might be able to sit down in 15 minutes. If you come at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. there's a guaranteed hour-and-a-half wait. On the weekdays there are times you can just come right in.

When people are waiting, do they offer you anything to get inside?
Some people like to come in and say they know me or know Abe. Some people try to say they are on the list, which there is no list. I feel like at one point someone has tried to offer some money to sit down but unfortunately the dining room is small and every seat is part of the wait list, even if it's a bar seat.

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Why do you think people have latched on so much?
When we opened we definitely had a following that supported us through our supper club (X-Marx). Honestly, I think it's the food. It's a small restaurant and we've always pushed the limits of comfort zones. You're going to sit next to someone you don't know, you're probably going to share things, it's just a different setting. And there's something about these large clay pots that people share. Our restaurant is small and it's a loud hustle-and-bustle place and that's comforting.

When is the best time to come in?
People call about this all of the time and I say 5 to 5:15 p.m. especially with the weather getting nicer. On Saturdays you're going to have to get here at 5 p.m.; if you want to eat at the second seating get here at 5:30 p.m. We won't take names over the phone and unfortunately you physically have to be here. I always say the best night to come is when there's a sporting event. It's interesting to see how many sports fans are foodies.

Have you had a lot of celebrities or politicians come in?
We had the mayor come in and someone did tell us so we were prepared. We had the Deputy Mayor come in and he brought his family. Someone called and said they were a part of a football team and were trying to make reservations but we don't take reservations. We've had to deny some people.

Do people implore you to start taking reservations?
There are definitely people that are upset and don't understand; we get those calls daily. But it's working for us.

If you did take reservations would you be booked for months out?
Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn't. But I don't want people to have to wait even a month to come in. We're just trying to cook some food over here and we're happy you're willing to wait.

Are there any changes or expansions in the future to help people not wait so long?
No plans of expanding the dining space or anything like that. We like the size. If we added more seats it wouldn't be Fat Rice or the Fat Rice experience where you can hear the kitchen and it's a loud raucous environment.

Is brunch just as busy?
It's a totally different thing. People come to brunch because they couldn't get in (for dinner). There's a lot of new faces and it gives us an outlet to do things we can't offer at night. Friday is definitely slower; Saturdays and Sundays have had lines out the doors too.

Do people know what they're getting into with the wait and the food?
There's definitely a lot of people that don't. That's where we like to be able to teach things to people about Macau being a Portuguese colony, the flavors, the spices. It's fun to talk about what went on hundreds of years ago. There are periods where there's someone from Macau here every night.

Where do you go on your day off?
I don't really have a day off. Mondays (when Fat Rice is closed) I'm doing nut production (for Mama's Nuts) and they're meeting days and all kinds of e-mail days.
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· Fat Rice [Official Site]

Fat Rice

2957 West Diversey Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 661-9170 Visit Website

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