This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
[Photo courtesy Michael West]
In 2001, restaurant manager Michael West was poached by a certain shouty chef to help open a high-profile project: Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, which purported to rake in £17.5 million in profits before closing last year. West became an integral part of the Gordon Ramsay Restaurant Group for nine years — opening "all but one of his London restaurants" — and while working on Maze in 2005, West collaborated with chef Jason Atherton, a Ramsay protege who moved back to London from Dubai. "When Jason left to make a go of his own company, he asked me if I would go with him," West says. "And here we are today, years later."
In 2010, the first of Atherton's restaurants (Table No. 1) debuted in Shanghai. But Pollen Street Social, in London's Mayfair district, was considered the group's flagship, opening its doors in April 2011. West is now the group executive general manager of all of Atherton's restaurants, which include two neighboring Pollen Street restaurants (Little Social and Social Eating House) and properties in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai. Eater recently chatted with West about Atherton's five new projects, the interactive dessert bar, and introducing guests to a chef who's "big in Asia."
Was there any trepidation or worry about leaving the Gordon Ramsay empire to go start a new project?
Yeah, of course. There was always going to be a risk. I had a very secure job. There was always a risk when you change jobs and go to a company that's starting up. I always had a lot of faith in Jason and his ability. Deep down, I knew he could become a very successful businessman/chef. It was a risk that was well worth taking.
How do you split your time among the restaurants in the group right now?
I go around to all the other restaurants at least twice a day. It's important that I show my face.
I still try and spend the majority of my time at Pollen Street Social. However, I'm currently working on five new projects. Right now, we're just doing the opening of City Social in Tower 42 in the city. At the moment, I'm seven days a week there. Then we're going off to Hong Kong to open [Aberdeen Street Social] there next month. But when I'm in London not doing an opening, I will spend 90 percent of my time at Pollen Street Social, which is the flagship and the Michelin-starred restaurant. I go around to all the other restaurants at least twice a day, though. They're all within a 10-minute walking distance; it's perfect.
It's very important that I show my face because we've got lots of regular guests that go around to all the restaurants. So I always pop in and say hello to them, so they don't think that we just put them into another restaurant and forget about them. It's very important that we go around there. Jason tries to get around there every day, as well.
The dining room. [Photo: courtesy Pollen Street]
To speak about Pollen Street Social specifically, how would you describe the layout of the space and how the mood changes within each space?
As you enter, obviously you have a reception desk. Then you're straight into the cocktail bar. It's a very long bar. I think there's 14 barstools along it in a straight line, so it should show the length of the bar. There's lots of noise in the bar. Really great cocktails being shaken. Lounge-y tables. There's also some dining tables in the bar section. Then you go through an arch, I guess you could call it, into the main dining area, and you've got this beautiful seventies-y dining room with a big work station in the middle of it. And then the dessert bar at the end with an open-plan kitchen, which is glassed off.
The dessert bar's a great feature because after the main course, you can go sit at the dessert bar and see where your dessert's being made, interact with the chefs, and also see Jason and his team creating all the food. In a way, it's a bit like a chef's table.
The dessert bar's a pretty unique feature. Do guests get confused when you tell them to move on to another section of the restaurant for dessert?
Some people think that we're just trying to get them off the table, which isn't the case.
They don't get confused because it's a feature of the restaurant: From 90 percent of the tables, you can actually see the dessert bar. So, what we do is we approach the table. If it's two businessmen having a business lunch, then we won't even offer it to them. But if it's some people you can see are really interested, involved in the restaurant, we'll explain to them what it is: If you wish to go to the dessert bar, you can, or you can have a dessert at your table. But if you do go to the dessert bar, you actually interact with the chefs, see your desserts being made. And also see Jason on the pass. Some people, very few, minority of people, think that we're just trying to get them off the table, which isn't the case. It was just more, we're always trying to do something different in our restaurants, so that was the idea that we came up with for Pollen Street Social.
Let's say I'm walking in without a reservation at 8 p.m. on a Saturday. What would be the wait for a table?
It would really depend on the day-by-day situation. We get people that don't turn up for their bookings, so sometimes you walk in without a booking and get sat down straight away. We also have the bar counter in the bar section, which serves exactly the same menu, which we don't take reservations for. If a seat were available there, we would offer you that. Otherwise, we would also try and ring our sister restaurants to see if they had a table. Or we can put you in the bar, get you some drinks, and as soon as a table comes available, we would give you that. We could do canapés, which we can give to you to give you something while you're waiting.
In terms of calling your sister restaurants, do you have a lot of diners take you up on that offer?
Quite a lot actually, yeah. If we don't have a table, we'll ask, "Would you like us to try our other restaurants?" The majority of people say yes, especially when they realize how close they are.
The dessert bar. [Photo: Facebook]
I know that you're located in a very unique neighborhood of London. How does the neighborhood affect the crowds that come into the restaurant?
We're in the heart of Mayfair, but we're in a very small little road, so not many people actually know Pollen Street. But because we're in Mayfair, Mayfair's quite a destination, so Monday through Thursday, it's a very business-oriented crowd. Not really local people but Mayfair businessmen, and a lot of people actually come from the city to us as well. But Friday and Saturday, the crowd changes dramatically. It's more people coming into town for birthdays and anniversaries and celebrations.
Do you get a large tourist crowd given that Jason has so many international restaurants?
Jason's quite big in Asia. People actually come and ask if they can meet him and have their photos taken with him.
We get a very large tourist crowd from Asia, yes, which is where all the other restaurants are. The majority of them do know Jason — Jason's quite big in Asia — so a lot of them, especially from Singapore and Hong Kong, they actually come and ask if they can go meet him and have their photos taken with him. All that kind of stuff. We take quite a lot of people into the kitchen to meet Jason because not only is he a good chef, he's actually a nice person. [Laughs] I like to get people in there to meet him.
What about celebrities or VIPs?
Yeah. We're lucky because we're quite a high-profile restaurant. We do get quite a lot of celebrities, and royalty, as well. Quite a lot of actors, actresses, footballers, singers.
Tell me about some of the crazy requests you've gotten from guests.
Not a crazy request, but the weirdest thing that happened to me is a lady came and asked if she could look at the menu. And then she gave me the menu back and said, "I won't be eating here because everything on your menu comes from either the land or the sea." I wasn't really sure what to say to that. She walked out. I'm not really sure what she meant. Another great one was somebody asked what the difference was between salted and unsalted butter.
[Photo courtesy Pollen Street]
So let's say you're dealing with a guest who refuses to have a good experience. How do you handle that?
If they're there not to have a good time, there's nothing I can do, I'm afraid. We can only try.
Obviously you have to deal with each patron individually depending on what their problem was. Sometimes you can see this right away when people walk through the door, they're in a really bad mood, and they don't want to be there. The only thing that you can do is just kill them with kindness and just be as absolutely nice to them as possible, and try and diffuse the situation. There will be certain situations when you just can't do anything. There'll be nothing that you can do.
As long as you just try your best, and you're as nice as you possibly can be, and try and get every solution to any little problem. Make sure that they are getting superb service, and the food's coming out as quickly as possible. Then if they're there not to have a good time, there's nothing I can do, I'm afraid. We can only try.
Have you ever had to throw a guest out of the restaurant?
This wasn't at Pollen Street, but yeah, I've had to ask a few people to leave because it was very obvious they were taking drugs in the bathroom which obviously, is nothing we would tolerate. Then obviously a few times because people are too drunk. That's really a difficult one to handle because they're not really listening to you. They don't want to leave. They just want to drink more. It's a delicate one to handle, but again, you have to really be nice to them, and make sure they know they're very welcome to come back the following day.
What is your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
I think you need to have patience, and very good communication skills, not only with the guests but with the staff. And knowledge is key: Your knowledge of not just of food, but of the wine list and the local area. For example, we're in the city now [at the soon-to-open City Social]. We're up on the 24th floor. I know for a fact people are asking, "Oh what's that building over there? What's that over there?" It's not just knowledge about what actually is your job but everything that comes around your job.