Welcome to Tough Doors, in which Eater talks to the chefs, GMs, and restaurateurs behind some of the world's most in-demand restaurants and gets the lowdown on how best to get in.
Demand has exploded in the decades since chef Damon Baehrel opened his eponymous restaurant — formerly known as the Basement Bistro — in his Earlton, New York home. Word-of-mouth has propelled the 15-20 course, five-hour-long tasting menu that Baehrel prepares and serves in his basement dining room to what might possibly be one of the toughest reservations to get in the world. Indeed, as Bloomberg has reported, Damon Baehrel has a waitlist that "stretches well into the back half of this decade."
So how can one possibly get a table at Damon Baehrel before this decade is over? Eater caught up with Baehrel by telephone to talk about how to best approach his restaurant's reservations system. Baehrel verifies that, yes, the list really is that long — with at least 10,000 inquiries coming in just last week after a recent press flurry — but that diners with flexible plans won't have to wait quite as long as they might fear. He also explains that the backlog is partially due to how busy he is: Not only does Baehrel cook and serve everything himself, but he also makes his own flour from acorns, and is working on a book in his spare time. Here's the interview:
How many seats do you have?
Technically, it's 20, but I very rarely seat 20 because I work alone here. I don't know if you realized that, but I'm completely alone at this place.
Yeah, how do you manage that? How do you decide night to night how many people to seat?
It varies. I'm not new. I've had this restaurant 25 years this year. I opened in 1989 and I've never sought out any kind of publicity. I've always liked to stay below the radar a little bit because I really enjoy living my life this way. Everything comes from the 12-acre property. In other words, I have no suppliers of any kind.
I create everything, including my own flours, my own oil, so there's nothing getting delivered.
Some people play sports. Some people have other hobbies that they do, music or painting. But it's just been so exciting to watch this whole country — and world, for that matter — just embrace this. They don't think of it as going to dinner. It's like they plan on it, they wait, they travel, and they want to experience something. So that's what's been exciting for me and just living off the land this way. I've more or less created my own cuisine here. It's called Native Harvest and, again, I create everything, including my own flours, my own oil, so there's nothing getting delivered other than if I choose to use seafood.
The folks that really do a little digging realize there's nothing like it in the world. That's why I think it's just been this old-fashioned word-of-mouth because I've never gotten the big media coverage or anything like that. It's just been so exciting to watch this. We already had a five-year waiting list before this recent little media stuff that started in the middle of December and we've gotten thousands and thousands of new inquiries from all over the world. I'm just totally blown away. [It's] a little overwhelming, to be honest with you.
How long has the waiting list been like that and when did it really originally blow up?
Every year the waiting list just seems to get more and more out of hand.
It really seemed to have started probably about 2006 when for some reason, I don't know, we got a really high — what is it called? — Zagat rating. When they started covering this area, we got a 29 for food and 29 for service. We were always busy. We always had a three or four month wait anyway just because of the size of the place, but that seemed to really start things in motion. People were really curious. All of a sudden, you had folks coming from Singapore, just curious about it, and every year [the waiting list] just seems to get more and more out of hand, but we're trying to be very diplomatic. We try to deal with the travel schedules and people flying in. We don't have any local guests. We never really did right from the beginning.
Have you talked to some of these guests about how they heard of you? I don't know that if I lived in Singapore I'd be paying attention to the Zagat ratings of...
I know, but people do and, again, it's really mostly the word-of-mouth. Like, for example, we'll have a party of four. They'll wait for years. They'll come from London, and [then] go back [to] their own food blogs and social media things. Next thing you know, from that party of four, we'll have over a hundred more people that are on the waiting list because they trust their friends. There's nothing like that word-of-mouth.
I've never paid attention to it, but all I've done was try to treat every guest just like I was going to see them once. I want them to remember it forever, so I give it 150% no matter who you are. It doesn't matter if you're a so-called VIP. Everyone's a VIP and I treat every single one with the utmost respect and dignity and have fun.
[Photo: Damon Baehrel]
Can you tell me a little bit more about how your reservation system works?
Oh, definitely. It's done by email only. I don't handle the reservations. I have a friend who's done it for over 20 years and he does it by email only. So basically, what they do is they send in their request and then he tries to get as much information as possible. The very few folks that are within driving distance go into a different category and then it's up to me to determine how many people I'm going to do in a certain month. That would be sometimes six, eight, ten, twelve months out, sometimes beyond that if the folks are making flight plans. And we stick to it.
Cancellations are nonexistent.
Sometimes I do add extra seatings if I feel I'm in good enough shape physically. So we might add some extra seatings with three, four, five months' notice. Cancellations are nonexistent. I think what happens is if folks do have a reservation and they realize they can't make it, they farm it out to other folks. I think that's what has happened because we've had folks show up [who had listed] specific food allergies. They show up and it's like, "Oh, no. We don't have any allergy restrictions."
That's another thing. Any food allergies or dietary restrictions really push the wait much longer because I have to be in a position to execute a completely different menu for perhaps one guest in the dining room. Working alone, any chef will tell you, it's like, "Whoa." That's a lot of work to try to execute it myself.
What does that mean? When somebody with a food allergy has a reservation, what happens?
We try to coordinate. Like if there's a night with a lot of vegetarians or no red meat people, we try to plan that as far in advance as possible so that I can execute that and not just be doing it for one single person.
So you're grouping the allergies and restrictions together.
Yeah. I make all my own cheeses and everything, so it takes me sometimes years to create the components to make these dishes. I'll make flour from a pine tree. I'll be cooking with the broth made from an oak wood. I'll be cooking with all the native ingredients on the property. It takes about a year for me to make the acorn flour, so it's not like I decide, "Oh, what's out there today? Let's cook it tonight." A lot of it is really planned well in advance.
In the Bloomberg piece, you said you were operating on a five-year wait. Since the latest deluge of attention, is that still the case. Is it longer?
The last count was over 10,000 inquiries from all over the world. That was last week.
It's significantly longer. The last count was over 10,000 inquiries from all over the world. That was last week, and I know that they've been coming in like crazy.
Ten thousand inquiries just last week?
Over 10,000. That was as of last week after the piece aired.
Why not have a cutoff date for reservations, like three months or a year in advance of each date? Why do you let it go for multi years?
It wouldn't work that way because people plan so much to come here. When you have someone coming from Abu Dhabi or Tasmania, which we do, they need to know in advance to make their flight arrangements and just hope to God that I'm still alive when they decide to come. I know a lot of folks go one, two, three months in advance, or just per year. It just wouldn't work [here]. I don't want people to have to try to compete that way. That's not the point. The point is we want to get to everyone we can, when we can, and make sure that it's worth the wait.
[Photo: Damon Baehrel]
So it's not like a waiting list that people get on when they email you? They get a date and a time to come, but it's just many years in the future?
There usually is a waiting list and, quite honestly, usually even though the list is huge, most people don't wait the five, six years. Usually we start offering folks tables and options after a couple of years. Sometimes [after] one to two years we can start offering them, depending on their profile. If it's a Saturday-only thing or a weekend-only thing, it's going to be a while. But I've actually opened sometimes on Mondays and Tuesdays just to go through some of the backflow, so if they're flexible and they don't mind coming on a Monday or Tuesday, we can start offering them tables [earlier].
The first time we start offering them different possibilities, they [usually] can't make it, so what we do is return them to their place on the list. We never drop anyone. That's another thing folks are worried about. "If we have a date and we can't make it, do we get dropped?" Not at all. We keep trying and trying until we find a date that's suitable.
How far in advance of the actual date do you reach out and offer it to them?
If they're within driving distance, it's maybe four, six, eight, ten months to a year when we start organizing a lot of the seating times. But the folks that are coming from farther, we try to work with them. They'll let us know, "We want to come to the US, say, in September of 2016," and we try to work something out like that in advance. It's really complicated, but we don't think of them as numbers. We think of every guest as precious, and I can't wait to see them.
You sort of addressed this already, but is there any hack available to people who want a reservation, but really can't wait an indefinite amount of time or five years or whatever? Is there anything somebody can do to get in faster?
It's about a five-hour experience, so we need to start that early.
Oh, yeah. Again, be flexible and don't mind coming on a Monday afternoon at 4:30. It's about a five-hour experience, so we need to start that early. Everyone says, "It sounds like a long time, but the time goes so fast. It's just unbelievable. It feels like about an hour, hour and a half." That's for everyone. It never feels like, "Oh, when's this going to end? It's taking so long." But be flexible and if something becomes available, even if it isn't your ideal date — like I said, a Monday or Tuesday at 4:30 or 4:45 — grab it, and I'll be here.
If you note in your reservation email like, "I'm happy to do any time on a Monday," then might you get bumped up the list a little bit?
Definitely, but again, a lot of the folks are just available weekends, and that's tough. They will get offered other tables that aren't Fridays [or] Saturdays, and they don't take them because they're not quite within driving distance. They want to come up and just stay in the area for the night. [But] definitely don't be afraid to [come on] Monday [or] Tuesday, the days we're not normally open.
How do you decide when to open up on Mondays and Tuesdays to get through the backlog?
That's all my schedule. When I decide, "Hey, you know what? I'm caught up on this. I'm caught up on that. I don't have any planting to do. Hopefully, we won't have any blizzards. Let's try adding a few seatings on this Monday and that Tuesday." It's all my schedule. I'm working on a book right now. It's about three-quarters of the way done and once I have that kind of cleared up, then I can maybe add some more seatings.
A lot of it, particularly in the winter, is dependent on the weather. If it's snowing and icy, it just makes it impossible for people to travel. Even if there's a storm in the Midwest, people are coming from the West Coast. They're stuck and nothing we can do.
If people change the number of people in their party, is that okay? How do you approach that?
Oh, yeah. They really can't add on, but to be quite honest, if someone drops a number, that's okay with me. The older I get, the smaller the seatings are. I love the smaller, more intimate seatings. When I get up to 14, 16, 18, it's a challenge for me just to keep on pace because I'm the waiter as well. So if a few people drop out, that's okay. No problem with me. No need to refill the seats, that's for sure.