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: Jessica Maher at Lenoir.
Since its opening in January, Lenoir, the French-inspired but globally focused South First Street restaurant from culinary "power couple" Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan, has become one of the hardest-to-score reservations in town. The reasons are twofold: first, the space itself is tiny, seating just about thirty people. Second, Duplechan and Maher really do both bring some amazing things to their shared endeavor in South Austin: they met working at four-star restaurants in New York City, and Duplechan enjoyed some highly regarded time as executive chef at TRIO at the Four Seasons upon their move to Austin, while Maher has Dai Due on her local resume.
Today, Maher manages the front-of-house at Lenoir in addition to creating some of their epic desserts. Eater Austin talked with her to find out how she keeps diners happy in small but communal space, handles VIP guests and manages the reservations "matrix" day after day.
It's Saturday night at 8 p.m. Are you getting a table at Lenoir without a reservation?
We actually keep a couple of tables open. One of them is a two person table and in general we keep at least maybe a spot at the communal table or the bar open for two-top walk-ins. I don't know if you've ever been to the restaurant, but it's kind of small. [laughs]
We get a ton of requests for reservations, and they generally are crammed into that ideal dinner time hour. Between seven and eight-thirty or something. So we keep those open for first-come, first-serve. And now that we have a bar area in the back yard it's really not that bad to wait. And usually there's some kind of matrix-game in there where we can move people around and still seat walk-ins.
So we've figured out, over time, how to make table spaces available for people. It's harder for larger groups, though. But two-tops, we can usually fit in at some time, and if they're cool with waiting, we have the back yard and our full wine and beer menu. The weather is generally so nice, so it's really not too bad.
And the wait, really can range from thirty minutes, maybe less, to an hour. And sometimes people will wait an hour. If they don't want to wait? I understand. I generally don'tw ant to wait either. But that's why I make a reservation.
How far in advance do people need to make a reservation for dinner on a Saturday night?
All of our reservations are taken over the phone, and if people e-mail me reservations I try to call them back. We don't do anything online. So that gives us an opportunity to build a waitlist. So at the beginning of the week, that's when I recommend calling for two-person parties. For larger parties? If you want 7:30 for 4 people, it's good to call the week beforehand. That's only because we only have a couple of four-top tables and the community table, and it's that sweet spot time.
But we do get cancellations all the time, which is why we put people on our waitlist and try to call them as quickly as we know someone has cancelled. And we call a day before to confirm the reservation, so we can make sure people on the waitlist get plenty of time and notice.
How do you plan the seating chart every night, once you know which parties are coming in when?
We are ridiculously, I don't even know if old-school is the word for it. It's like, making outlines. We have maps that are laminated—a la, like, Guero's, from when I was a teenagers—especially for Fridays and Saturdays. We have one for every day of the week we're open. But in general we try to plan the week out ahead, and plan the tables out as far ahead of time as possible so we can refer to the map while we're taking reservations.
And make sure we know exactly what kind of tables we have to offer. Because a two-person table is different than sitting at the community table or sitting at the bar. So we can talk to people on the phone and say, 'Just so you know, this reservation is for the bar.' In my estimation, all the tables are equally great. You get the same experience. But some people just really want to be at a two-person table. Because they're there for their anniversary and they don't want to be elbow-to-elbow with somebody else. So we map out the tables as far in advance as we can.
Because it is such a tight squeeze inside, how do you keep elbow-to-elbow diners happy?
That's why we do the phone reservation system. It's good to get on the phone with them beforehand, so you can alleviate any fears people might have. There's a spot at the bar, right at the corner of the bar, that's almost like being at your own table because you don't have someone on either side of you, and you're still facing each other. If we have the community table booked with large groups? We try to put those people on the end so they don't have people on either side of them. And if we have walk-ins, they'll usually end up at the community table and don't mind so much.
I think it's most scary for people who haven't been to our restaurant before. And there have been plenty of people I've talked to on the phone who say, 'If it's communal dining, I don't want it and I'm not coming to your restaurant.' And I mean, that's fine, but I try to explain to them that they should really come in and have the experience once. Because I feel like at our communal table especially, there's lots of room. And if a four-top is together at the communal table with a three-top, they internalize their conversation and turn in. Sometimes people do talk to each other, but that's like a personal preference. I feel like communal dining is not so new that a lot of people aren't okay with it. And for people who adamantly want to be at a table by themselves? We do the best we can to accomdoate them. If we don't have the exact time they want, we say we have this time or this time available. Or we can put you on our waitlist if that opens. Or find a different day. We do the best we can, basically.
What kind of special requests and favors do people ask of you?
Yeah, sometimes they want a bottle of wine or sparkling wine on the table if it's a special occasion or anniversary. People sometimes will call us to tell us about their dietary restrictions, which is fine. We work with all dietary restrictions. They want to find out if they can bring wine in. They want to bring their own birthday cakes in. Special stuff like that, all of which we're okay with.
Do you get a lot of celebrities or VIP's come by?
We get a lot of people who are scouting for celebrities, but I think we're so small that for certain people, that's a lot of exposure for someone who's really well known. And that depends on their level of comfort. In terms of Austin people we have VIP's come in all the time. And we've had a couple of people who were celebrities to us but not really national celebrities.
I kind of wonder if we'll ever become a celebrity hang-out. I think we're too small, but that's okay. We like the people who are in the neighborhood all the time. It's the Norm effect from Cheers, like 'Hey, you're here again!' We like that.
Do people ever try to bribe you for a particular table or reservation?
Not with money, no. They might try to bully me into it, but that doesn't work! [Laughs] We had this host who used to work for us, but she moved to New York—all our hosts are amazing, but she was really good at making people feel like she was really doing it for them and this guy afterward gave her like a $20 tip being like, "Thank you for getting us a table!' And she would have done the same thing for anybody.
But no, in general we don't get anybody trying to bribe us. Not so far. That'd be really funny, though.
Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan. [Photo: Courtesy of Lenoir, by Jody Horton]