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: CK Chin at Swift's Attic.
CK Chin, partner and general manager at Swift's Attic. [Photo: Patrick Michels/EATX]
Swift's Attic has it all when it comes to creating buzz for a new restaurant: an eclectic small plates menu, quirky design, a great location and a seasoned kitchen staff with no shortage of Austin cred. But before guests get to the food and the drinks and atmosphere, they're greeted by the warm smile of CK Chin, general manager and partner at Swift's.
Chin may run the front-of-house operations at Swift's, but he's also the man behind the restaurant itself. The former bouncer and bartender left College Station and a future in elementary education to work in the Austin restaurant scene, putting in time at a corporate gig with Fox & Hound, then moving on to Kenichi and consulting at Paggi House. Swift's Attic is Chin's newest project, and Eater Austin sat down with him one sunny afternoon at the restaurant to talk about two-hour wait times, the magic of networking and making sure Mel Gibson has a nice time when he comes for dinner.
So how did you come to be a partner and general manager here at Swift's?
This was something that [Austin restaurateur Stuart Thomajan, of Paggi House] had, this space. But he didn’t have a concept. I had a concept for this that was very not chef-driven, because I didn’t have a chef. It was one of those things I realized, I’m not going to piecemeal this together. So let’s just build it not around a chef. Let’s just have a bar with food. Obviously I know a lot of chefs so I ended up calling Mat Clouser, who’s been a good friend of mine since he was at Kenichi with me. He was the original opening chef de cuisine at Uchi, right. So we worked together for years at Kenichi and we’d always pipe dreamed about opening a place together.
So I called him and at the time, he and his wife were already doing side projects, so he had a couple things on his plate. I said well, why don’t you consult? Come in every four months and train. So time goes on and the concept starts to flesh out and since he’s a friend of mine, we’d walk through the space. He just got more and more excited about it and one day he said, as it became more real and we started talking about food, ‘Hey, so, you want to just do this? Do you want a chef?’
How's the reception been so far?
It’s been really good. We took a lot of chances on this, especially with the menu. Learning from Stuart, I’ve really kind of removed all ego on this. What we’ve all talked about is we’re just one person. I’m just one person. So whether I like it or dislike it, is really inconsequential because the beast that is the Austin culinary community, the Austin going out community, it’s whether they like it. We’re worried about the ‘they,’ not the ‘me.’ So we’re like, we joke and say this is the FUBU of restaurants, you know, the for-us, by-us. We’re just going to do what we like and hope that everyone else feels the same way.
The design itself is certainly unique.
With the décor, we tried to find someone who hadn’t done a lot of restaurants, Leslie Fossler, and who really got the vision we were talking about. This place has great bones. We tore up the dirty, dingy carpet and found beautiful pine wood floors. We tore down plaster and paint and found this hundred year old mural. We tried to pay homage to what this place was. It’s the Swift building, so I came up with the name, Swift’s Attic, because it’s the attic of the Swift building. We tried to keep it classic but cool enough that it can be downtown.
I grew up in southwest Houston, kind of in the hood a little bit. And one of the things I used to talk about is how I haven’t gone to a nice restaurant, ever, and really bobbed my head because I enjoyed the music. It’s always been ambient. So I think Austin’s ready for that, so I’m going to try it out. So we’re playing De La Soul and Pharcyde and 90’s hip-hop and either you’re going to like it or you’re not going to like it, and that’s the vibe that we’re going for. I told chef, err on the side of unique. Because in the end, if you don’t like it, you won’t come back. And there’s a lot of things you might not like about it, like any other restaurant. But if you like it, you have to come back. Because there’s nothing like it. I’d rather bank on that.
We heard Aaron Franklin and some fellow foodies stopped by right when y'all opened this spring. What's it like to have industry people here right off the bat?
Aaron Franklin came by with a whole buch of people from Beast in Portland, and yeah, that was kind of where it really gave me some confidence in what we’re doing, because among the culinary people we got recognized. I know for a fact, because I’m in the business, we get one day off a week. We’re closed on Sundays. So if I see a chef or another restaurant owner come in and eat, it’s a huge compliment. It’s huge. You get to go out to eat once every three weeks and if you choose us, it’s a big deal. To see those guys come in. To see Paul [Qui] come in and try the food, and to see Todd [Duplechan, of Lenoir] come in with his wife, to see Aaron Franklin and so on and so forth, it means a lot to us.
Were you ready for that kind of attention?
We soft opened for a month. One of my biggest pet peeves is restaurants that open before they’re ready. I think it’s greedy. For me, it’s one of those things that, if I go to a concert and I’ve been wanting to see this band forever, and I’ve paid $150 for a ticket and I show up and they go [guitar imitation] “Waaaaa!” and they stop and go wait, can we start that again? It’s the first time we’ve ever played this! I’m like, that’s not my fault. Then charge me rehearsal prices. So for the first month we said, you tell us what’s wrong, and people are a lot more forgiving. If you don’t, then the snarky comes out and they say you’re not ready.
And conceptually the whole idea was to have good food and good drink and good atmosphere without any of the pomp and circumstance that comes from fine dining. We don’t want to take ourselves that seriously. We want to have fun with it. There’s all these made-up words all over the menu because we’re almost poking fun at the idea of people that are taking food to this level of, why is it taken so seriously? Just enjoy it.
What are your busiest times?
Thursday, Friday and Saturdays. Lunches, right now, there’s no rhyme or reason. Our busiest lunch was a Thursday. Our second busiest was a Tuesday. The lunch crowd is a totally different beast. And as the word spreads and people realize this place is open, they’ll say, we should try that. So we’re just trying to work our way into their rotation.
Firday and Saturday are madness right now.
What does "madness" mean?
The restaurant’s small. We say small. It seats about 90, not including the actual bar seats, so let’s say 100. It fills up pretty quickly. Lately we’ve been going on waits right around 6:30 on Friday and Saturday nights. A lot of it is because we do take reservations. A lot of small restaurants opt not to. I believe that if you’re going to make your plans around coming to my restaurant, then you deserve to be able to do that. It’s part of the non-pretention type thing. If you want to come in here, I really want you to come in here. So that’s why we’re on a wait.
How do you make sure people stay happy while they're waiting on dinner?
People come in and I say, I know this table is open but I have someone coming in in 15 minutes. We’ve gone as far as two and a half hour wait. We don’t take reservations for these tables [gestures to the communal tables in the front of the restaurant] unless it’s a large party. We don’t take reservations for the bar typically, unless you make a special request. And we’re in the game of not saying no, so if somebody really loves sitting at the bar, we’ll say no problem. No big deal.
So typically when you have a wait that long, there’s some cycling out. But we offer a full menu anywhere. You can stand on this rail and have a full dinner if you want to. I’ll serve you dinner wherever you want to eat it. But we want to give the reservations their due and the service they deserve. I’m a firm believer in under-promise, over-deliver. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s going to be 30 minutes and have it be an hour. I’d rather say realistically, I can guarantee you you should have a table in an hour and a half, but lately bar people have been rotating out, so you may get something sooner. And there’s always cancellations and no-shows.
How long will you wait on a no-show reservation?
Fifteen minutes. Usually. Depending on the size and we try to call and confirm all our reservations. If for some reason we’re unable to confirm it, usually the 15 minutes is pretty strong. If we did confirm it and we spoke with someone that day, we’ll call them again and say do you still need this table? Or, with a larger party, I know that’s like herding cats. So I’m like look, do you know what’s going on? I’m a believer in the communication aspect. If you tell me hey, I’m running late, I’m like, that’s fine. I have a 7:00 reservation for you, and you say you’ll show up at 7:30, okay. I did book a 9:00 reservation after you, because I anticipated you’d be here for two hours, plenty of time for dinner. But if you can be aware of that for me, I’ll be glad to hold your table. But work with me.
Usually explained that way, people are a little more receptive to it. Instead of saying nope, you need somebody here, we’re giving your table away. That’s very New York.
And you're going for a much more Austin vibe.
You know, I’m thankful for every human being that walks through. Everybody. I would love to be able to serve every single person. It’s a huge compliment, honor, it’s flattering. It’s humbling to see that this many people are coming to check out the place but the fact of the matter is, we have physical limitations.
The thing I never lose sight of is that we’re in the hospitality industry. Our job and goal is to be hospitable. If you lose sight of that, you’ve lost the game. For me, it’s one of those things where I’m thankful for every person who comes through here. The thing about Austin that’s amazing is that per capita, you’ve got millionaires and you’ve got students.
How do you strike a balance between being an upscale destination for foodie types and being welcoming to the average Joe and Jane?
Mel Gibson actually came in here for dinner last week. But what’s funny is our hostess told his people ‘No,’ because we were booked. But I did the Godfather thing where I’m moving tables around and making tables for people. But it’s hard for me to argue that that person, Mel Gibson, is more important than this college freshman who’s bringing his first date and he’s saved up all month for it.
It’s hard for me to say that that’s not the most valuable person. It means more to me that that person is willing to do that. There’s a handful of people that go out to eat seven days a week and they’re our regulars and we love them. But it’s amazing when you see the people who they’re eating it and they’re lighting up like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never tasted something like this before,’ rather than the people who are like ‘Well this is like when we were in Copenhagen and such.” I’m like, as much as I appreciate hearing us compared to these names, it’s also really, really good to hear from people who say, ‘Man, this is so cool.’ And they might not come back for six months, or only on their anniversary or birthday, but it’s hard for me to bring my brain out of that logic and say this person is worth more than this person. Because they’re not.
Sounds like it goes back to what you're saying about having fun and being hospitable.
To me, it’s important to be thankful for that kind of stuff. You start looking at people as numbers and it’s not genuine any more. And people can feel that, right away. It’ll never get there for me, at least.