It seems like hundreds of restaurants must open in New York City every month, yet only a handful manage to create so much buzz even before opening that they're immediately slammed with reservations and featured in all the newspapers, magazines, and websites. For the Restaurant Buzz TimesTalk at the NYWFF on Saturday, former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni talked to three of New York City's most visible and successful restaurateurs — Donatella Arpaia, Ken Friedman, and Danny Meyer — about how they run their empires.
The double-edged sword that is "friends and family"
Meyer said that pre-internet explosion, "it was a blessing, you had time to fix your mediocrity before the rest of the world" came in in. These days, "you really have to get your act together the day you open. People view it like a sporting event, they want to be the first to get there—if it was good, they want to tell their friends they were the first to be there, if it was a trainwreck, they want everyone to see it." When Maialino opened, they had bloggers coming in as friends of friends and family; after the second night they limited it to employees of his company Union Square Hospitality Group.
Arpaia doesn't do friends and family at all because she doesn't feel it's a real experience. She charges from the get go, and will comp if it's not great. "If I'm charging, I'm fair game, I'm expected to be good from day one." She also noted that friends and family tend not to tip. Friedman tries to keep everyone who will write about it out of friends and family, until right before the opening.
How to get impossible reservations
Meyer has three secrets to making reservations:
1. Wait for a recession! Recessions are great for making reservations!
2. Don't be an jerk on the phone, because if you're already a jerk on the phone, why would we ever want you in our restaurant?
3. If it's a place with a bar, go to the bar and have dinner there. Make sure to tip well and praise them, praise their food, praise the service, and praise the bartender. Leave your card and say, "I'd love to come back and eat here again next week, if there's any chance I can get a table..." And the chances are pretty good you'll be able to get a table. Make sure to take the name of the person who took your reservation and then say hi to them when you get there. Voila! You've managed to become a regular with just one visit.
Arpaia: Just be nice. Just go to the bar and if you're nice and something opens up, maybe you can get a table.
Friedman doesn't take reservations. Well, except when he does, and that's mainly for regulars who live in the neighborhood and come in a few times a week. They can call and request a table, and get a call back later on in the evening telling them to come in at x time because a table will be opening up.
Meyer: "You start with a point of view, a story you want to tell. You want to be as pure as you can when you talk to the architect, when you talk to the chef. You want to stay true to the story. At the end of the year, the clientele that attaches itself to that story might be different than what you expected." Maialino is the opening that shocked him the most, even though it ended up playing out the way he'd planned. "The story we wanted to tell was a love affair with Rome," but the hotel wanted to make it for their European clientele, just like the bars already in the hotel, while Meyer wanted something for New Yorkers. As it turns out, the hotel's crowd has zero interest in Maialino. It's turned into an enclave of New Yorkers within an enclave of Europeans within New York itself. So recursive!
On Europeans and tipping
Bruni asked how European customers are different, Arpaia and Friedman instantly and simultaneously responded, "They don't tip!" And if they do, Friedman said they never tip more than 10%. Arpaia said sometimes servers will come up to her if they have a large table of Europeans to ask if they can put a service charge on the bill, but she has to say no. Maybe prices should be raised to include tips as is done at Per Se, Bruni suggested, and the restaurateurs recoiled. Arpaia asked him what the service is like in Italy and he replied, "Terrible!" She said it's because Americans like working for money.
Meyer talked about the inequity of the public deciding how much only one person in the restaurant makes, and for reasons that might not be their own responsibility or fault—if the kitchen is backed up and taking time to get dishes out, the server has nothing to do with that. He pointed out that restaurants are a manufacturing company, and no one expects people doing the manufacturing to make as much as sales; servers actually make more than anyone, except chefs. "Who are we to write checks and decide someone should make than a cook who worked just as hard or harder?" Also, servers tell him they like tips: "Don't take away my incentive to sell another bottle of wine, it's my reason to push harder."
All three tip at least 20%, usually more. Arpaia says 15% is the tip she'd leave for exceptionally bad service. Everyone in the restaurant industry tips well anyway, but they kind of have no choice because they're so well-known that they'd get talked about if they didn't.
On gossip columns and famous clientele
Bruni asked, "What are smaller publicity coups?" Places you wouldn't necessarily think of, that boost traffic? Friedman said it's gossip columns—people want to come in because they've read that someone famous was said to come in. Arpaia said you have to be careful of that sort of thing: "At davidburke and donatella, if Barbara Walters came in and I said something, she'd never come in again, but it's nice for other people to come in and see her there." She admits that she'd totally call Page Six if Lady Gaga came in, for example.
Meyer, however, said that he's never called Page Six. Arpaia exclaimed, "You're better than me!" Meyer said he isn't really, and explained why he doesn't do it: Someone from Page Six came in to Union Square Cafe one night in 1985 and asked him if Jessica Lange had been in the night before. She had, and it was a big deal to Meyer, but in the name of discretion he said, "Oh really?" To which the writer replied, "You know, we could put you out of business." And so since then he's never called Page Six.
On social media
Bruni asked if they have people who monitor the restaurant's name on Twitter, in case something happens in real time. Arpaia: "Can we do that? I Google Alert myself, but that's pretty cool." Bruni recounted how Michael White told him a food writer once tweeted that a chair was uncomfortable while he was at a restaurant, and someone on the staff saw it live and replaced his chair. Meyer said he was having dinner somewhere and someone came up to him saying "I saw you were here!" It turned out the person he was with had Foursquare'd that they were eating there together.
On online reviews
Arpaia: "I print them out and read them to the staff." Friedman: "I read everything, but April [Bloomfield] doesn't. I show her the good stuff but not the bad stuff."
Meyer prefers old-school comment cards, and still has them in his restaurants—people write them there, not like the "throwing a hand grenade and running away" that the internet can be like. He thinks everyone has a responsibility to read what's out there; just ignore the stuff that's not helpful, and pick out the stuff that is. It can be a good early warning system, if you can see a pattern developing. For example: a pattern of food not coming out on time, food served too salty, or someone not being nice on the phone—then it's helpful. Arpaia thinks some unhappy reviews are written by people who've never been there, like waiters that didn't get hired.