Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Ryan Anderson at Uchi.
Uchi's Ryan Anderson. [Photo: Patrick Michels/EATX]
Chef Tyson Cole's South Lamar sushi restaurant Uchi has become the stuff of Austin culinary legend, and as Cole's celebrity grows—along with his empire, with Uchiko in North Austin, Uchi Houston, and tentative plans for an Uchi Dallas—so does the popularity of his original spot.
Eater Austin sat down with the Uchi group's training manager and all-around wearer of many hats, Ryan Anderson, their number-one table wrangler, to ask him about celebrity accommodations, bribes ("frowned upon," of course) and his favorite table at the restaurant. Says Anderson:
"My job is to go from restaurant to restaurant to make sure we're holding that culture, that we're doing Uchi-style, and that's to make people feel comfortable. Make people feel welcome. Approachable. Regardless of how expensive or sometimes unattainable tables are at our restaurants, we want you, when you sit down, to feel like you're at home. That's what 'uchi' means, ultimately. We want you to feel very comfortable here."
So, it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. You don't have a reservation. What's the situation like at Uchi? Are you getting a table?
Absolutely. Part of my biggest responsibility is to make sure the dining experience starts not when you sit down to eat, because that's not the truth, the truth is that the dining experience starts when your car door opens up, and you go, 'We're here.' And you're greeted by really gracious hosts and you get to sit outside for a little bit and enjoy some company and have a glass of sake, have a few bites. And it goes from a tedious wait, from something that's obnoxious to something that's relatively entertaining and part of the whole experience. So by the time you sit down, you've already had stellar service. And I think that that detracts a lot from folks who want to walk away from a wait. There's no denying that there are occasionally times when we get to two-hour waits, but that's something that we as a restaurant group feel pretty fortunate about. Because that's two extra hours we get to spend with the guests that we wouldn't normally get to spend with them. Whereas normal people would just walk away, that's our opportunity to start the dining experience right then and there. And talk about the Hama chili and get them excited about it, so that by the time you actually sit down, you're thinking, 'I know exactly what I'm going to have! I'm so excited about it!'
So on a busy Saturday, a two hour wait is fair?
I'd say, in complete clarity, our waits range from about 45 minutes on a Saturday, which is pretty fair, for the beginning of the night, up to about an hour and a half. I've seen nights in this restaurant where we've eclipsed two hours, but that's few and far between.
Is that also the case at Uchi Houston?
Uchi Houston is a little bit of a different thing. It's very, very busy. And Uchi Houston is set up very similarly to us here in Austin in the fact that we have a really tremendous waiting area and a bunch of really gracious hosts who start that process for you. But Houston's a very reservation-based restaurant, as is Uchiko. We say Uchi is about 90 percent walk-in driven, about 10 percent reservation. Whereas the other restaurants, you're looking at more of a 60-70 percent reservation, 30-40 percent walk-ins. Our walk-in factor is something that's really important to us as a group, because we want to make sure if you really just want to come in on a Friday night on a whim, that you can come in and eat and have a great time. That's very important to us, to maintain that culture. And that's a huge part of what we do, to maintain that attainability to come in and have a phenomenal dining experience whether you just want to have a couple of rolls and a hot sake and go on, or if you want to sit down for a two-and-a-half-hour experience. Either way, we want you to have the best meal you ever had. That's a huge part of that availability.
How do you handle being a destination restaurant for celebrities when they're in town? If it's ACL weekend and Jack White wants a table, what happens?
The restaurant has been so well versed in working with guests like that, because of Tyson's [Cole] celebrity, because of Paul's [Qui] celebrity, because of Phil's [Speer] celebrity. So for us, it's just a normal person and we treat them as such. I'd like to think that's why guests come here. I'd like to think that's why some of the higher profile individuals come to our restaurants, because we don't treat them any differently. If we know someone's coming in in advance and they have a reservation, then that makes their wait a little bit shorter, but that doesn't mean they get preferential treatment in a way that makes them any different than you. Are they more special than the guest that comes in here twice a week? Absolutely not.
Our opinion is, we like to feel that those guests coming in here, those high profile guests, are coming in here for an amazing meal and because they're going to be treated like anyone else. We do get the last-minute request for large parties, particularly at Uchiko because we have a private dining room. And that gives us a little bit more freedom to accept those large parties and some of those guests that are looking for a little bit more privacy. We can give that to them, but we do our best to make them feel as natural as possible without any fawning over them. And this has been the same service staff at Uchi for almost eight years now. We've had a very, very solid core group of servers who it doesn't even faze them. We get more excited when we drop off a Hama chili for a first-timer and they go, 'Oh my god, that's the best thing I've ever eaten!' That's exciting for us. It's kind of nerdy, but it's absolutely true.
Do people ever try to bribe you to skip ahead in the line?
Sure, that happens. Very rarely. I think we've been lucky enough in Austin especially to create a dining culture that people understand what they're getting into when they come into our restaurants. That behavior isn't, not only is it frowned upon, but it's not acceptable. Again, money is not the bearing of it all. It's the matter of who's going to have the best time at our restaurant. Those are the people we want to take care of. There are times when bribes are offered, for sure. Without a doubt. And I think it's almost, it's flattering to know that we're so desired that someone is willing to. I wouldn't pay $100 for any table! But for someone to do that, it's kind of flattering. We do our best to decline graciously. And we always decline graciously.
Where's your favorite table here?
I really like Table 25. It feels a little bit more intimate. Part of the experience of eating at Uchi is you feel like you're sitting in the middle of a beehive but you never get stung. There's a flurry of activity around you. If my wife and I are coming in for dinner, I prefer sitting there. It's just a little more intimate because it's a little more quiet.
And where is it, exactly?
It's the first booth on the left inside. It's just kind of a nice spot. It's also really, really stellar for people watching. So you can kind of nestle in and enjoy the view, and enjoy the view of the food and have great service. You kind of feel like a fly on the wall.
This restaurant, being so petite, kind of has a problem accommodating large parties but the way we built those middle tables? We can group them together so we can accommodate large parties. So we've tried to do everything we can to accommodate that need, because we do get a lot of large-party walk-ins. A restaurant this petite can really challenge you from a seating operation. I never worry about the ability of the kitchen. These guys are literally the best cooks I've ever worked with in my entire life. They're the best in the entire country. I never worry about their ability to put out food. But I do worry, every once in a while, about the volume of people coming into the restaurant. Sometimes I go, 'Wow, this is going to be a good night.' If my feet hurt at the end of a shift, I know we've done something right.
What kinds of special requests and favors do guests ask of you?
With the advent, recently, of some pretty severe dietary restrictions, i.e. vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, 'I don't eat nightshades.' There's a lot of things that 99.9 percent of the time, we can work around those dietary restrictions. Because it's really important for those individuals to have a great meal. Just because you're vegetarian doesn't mean you should have to skimp on flavor. I personally don't eat pork or beef, and some restaurants will just give you, like, a salad. Well, that's not really fair. You should be able to have a good punch of flavor.
The other thing we get a lot of requests for, this is not only a group of regular guests that come in here, but it's also a destination for anniversaries, birthdays, job promotions. It's a celebratory restaurant. So there's a lot of guests who call ahead and say 'I'd like to buy a bottle of champagne for the Smiths tonight.' We do a lot of that via telephone in advance so that it's a surprise. Part of the element of eating at Uchiko and Uchi should be that it's a surprise, whether it's a bite of food or a glass of sake you've never had before, that's the sushi bar experience. You sit there and someone goes, 'Hey, try this!' and you go 'Oh my gosh, this is awesome!' We want that surprise to come through.
We don't get too many requests for seating, you know, 'We like this table or that table.' The most seating requests we get are for the sushi bar. 'I want to sit at the sushi bar and I want to sit in front of Masa [Mikayke] because I've been sitting in front of Masa for ten years, and he's always my sushi chef.' And that's something we always try to honor.
Do you have any favorite customers?
It's really hard to nail down. I've created relationships, we've created relationships with so many guests. There were regulars at my wedding. And I really have fallen in love with the people that we get a chance to feed every single night. To feed somebody is such a nurturing thing. To me, eating here is kind of like eating at my mom's house.
John Sizemore, who's been one of our servers from the very beginning, has a dedicated following of regulars that come in every single night that he works. He has Wednesday regulars and Thursday regulars and it's really nice, because they've created relationships. A friendship. It's not just an interaction, it's an emotional connection.
What do you think is the most important tool in a Gatekeeper's arsenal?
I think there's two things that we strive for but personally, I've learned along the way and that's humility and empathy. To remain humble about the fact that 300 people want to eat in our restaurant tonight, it can quickly go to your head. It can quickly make us into a restaurant that goes, 'We're better than you.' But that's not the case.
And empathy follows that, hand-in-hand. You come in to eat tonight and you have had a rough day. And XYZ happened, and you just want to eat. And you're pissed off at the host because you can't get a seat within the hour. Well, what's the genesis of the issue? Is the issue that you had to wait an hour or is the issue that you had a rough day? Because I would love to give you a glass of sparkling, have you have a seat, kick your feet up, relax, and let you know you're in good hands. And understand the situation that you're in. I wouldn't want to wait. But if someone turns that wait into an experience, it's not a wait at that point. So empathy is really, really crucial at the front door when you're getting bombarded by person after person after person.
And that's something that we try to pass to our hosts. They have a very, very difficult job to try to appease that many people, and that many people who are all excited to get here. We have to disarm them immediately and in a really nice, humble, sweet, genuine way, say 'Hey guys, we're really excited to have you. Why don't you have a seat outside, let's check the wait, I'll be right back. Here's a cocktail, we're looking at about an hour tonight. Do you want to start with some edamame?' You talk to your friends. Next thing you know, you're seated. You're swooped away.