This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
FIG, which stands for Food Is Good, is the acclaimed restaurant in Charleston, S.C. run by James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata and his business partner Adam Nemirow. The two are working on a brand new venture, an oyster bar in the Upper King Street district, but they've promised their loyal fans that FIG won't lose is luster. To that end, they've got Chef de Cuisine Jason Stanhope running the kitchen, and Brooks Reitz taking care of the front of the house. Below, Reitz tells Eater what it's like keeping a popular restaurant in the heart of the south running smoothly.
It's Saturday at 8 PM. What's the wait for a table?
At that point in the night, the dining room is typically committed until much later in the evening. At 8 p.m., it's probably going to be an hour-and-a-half before we have the ability to seat a walk-in party. We do our best to accommodate, and if we can't make it happen, our door staff knows to offer to call other restaurants in the area and see if they can make reservations for them.
Can you dine at the bar?
Yes. We serve the full dinner menu at the bar, and we have the best bartenders in the city, bar none. We have a core team of two guys, Andrew and Ryan, and people come back just to see them, so the bar fills up quickly, and people have full meals there. It's great, watching these guys work, talking about the menu, making drinks. It's inspiring. We have a small "cocktail bar" next to the bar where guests wait to move up to the bar, and that has proved to be an attraction in and of itself.
FIG seems to be one of the most consistently busy restaurants in Charleston. How do you handle the demand?
We book the restaurant one month out, and we are fortunate enough now, at almost 10 years old, that those reservations go quickly. I'm always reminded of a quote I once heard by Yogi Berra: "That restaurant's so popular, nobody goes there anymore."
We certainly want to avoid being inaccessible, so we always ensure we have flexibility, whether that's in bar seating, walk-in tables, or last minute openings through OpenTable.
And one thing we continuously reiterate with our host staff is to never take that demand for granted, or assume we deserve those phone calls without working for them. We have to be thankful for every time the phone rings, because it's another opportunity to showcase our hard work to a new audience.
Talk about your favorite customers.
Of course I have a soft-spot for all of our regulars, of which there are many. What I really enjoy is when we have guests that work in the industry, because I know what kind of hours they work, and how cherished a dinner outside their own establishment can be, and because I know that they appreciate our efforts, and want to enjoy the full scope of the experience we have to offer.
We just wrapped the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, and we were able to host a bevy of our favorite chefs and industry pals. I don't get star struck, but I did ask Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune to sign our Negroni menu, because we quote her on the page. That was cool. She was super nice.
At the end of the day, every customer that walks through the door is my favorite customer, because they keep the lights on, and they keep me fed.
You recently remodeled the restaurant. How has this changed FIG?
I liken it to a new haircut: you can tell it's the same person, but things look a little cleaner, and a little more polished. Mike and Adam, the owners, were very careful to preserve the same feel that made FIG so comfortable and inviting. We got new wood floors, which are beautiful, and new banquettes, which are my favorite part. The kitchen also got a bad-ass rubber floor, and we've dropped glasses that haven't broken.
The most major change was the service station. We used to have a large table that could accommodate up to eight people in between the bar and the dining room. We got rid of that table and turned it into a service station that separates the two experiences. Now the bar feels larger, and we have this very elegant station that everyone passes through as they move from the bar to their table.
So how do you handle requests for large parties?
The largest group we can accommodate is six people. We know what we do best, and how to show people the best possible version of ourselves, and when we get into split groups, or larger tables, it is at the sacrifice of the best experience, and to the detriment of other smaller tables nearby.
We do have a lot of demand for bigger groups, but we politely decline and provide suggestions for other restaurants in town with private rooms and larger tables.
Any juicy details on the upcoming restaurant?
People in town know that Mike and Adam are opening a second place, and they know it's in a beautiful building on Upper King Street. It was a bank, and it has these massive ceilings and great windows. The natural light — it will just knock you out, it's so awesome.
Beyond that, all I can say is "oyster bar." The details, the things that will make it special — I can't reveal!