This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Since it opened last year, Brasserie 19 has found a warm reception from its River Oaks clientele. The lively atmosphere and chef Amanda McGraw's updated take on French classics has made Brasserie 19 popular from the beginning. In fact, it's one of the few restaurants in town with a full dining room at 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. Presiding over the madness is general manager Shawn Virene. He's been with the restaurant since it opened. He talks about going the extra mile for his demanding customers, what it was like to serve Daniel Boulud and what the deal is with those seats next to the windows.
How big is this restaurant? Inside and outside, I can seat 300. Almost 100 on the patio. Where is your favorite place in the restaurant to sit? The bar. 100 percent. I think you get to meet more people that way. It's just one of those restaurants where people come to feel at home. It's kinda like a neighborhood restaurant. People understand, hey, I'm going there. I don't really have to have anyone with me. I can go sit at the bar and make friends. It's just kinda worked out that way.
Eight o'clock on a Saturday night. Someone walks in without a reservation. How long are they waiting? It depends on who they are (laughs). Regular people. An hour. You can always squeeze in at the bar. It does turn into a waiting venue for people who are on a reservation list. You can usually squeeze right in. Usually on Saturday night at least an hour. What about on the patio? It's first-come first-serve. We don't take reservations on the patio.
Is there anything someone could say to shorten the wait? To me, no. To the hostess, yes. What do they say to the hostess? A hundred dollar bill. Do people do that here? It happens all the time. That's how you get that VIP status by your name, usually. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, money talks. To me, though, I try to be politically correct. You can't really piss a guy off that's been waiting for an hour. You can watch it happen, too. If I do it, I'm actually held to a different level than the hostess. I've had to deal with the problem before. It's not a pretty situation.
Who are your favorite customers? My favorite customers. I can't answer that. Why not? In general? You don't have to name names. I love foodies and wine people. 100 percent. People who just come in and want to have a good time and aren't concerned where they sit are usually the most easy-going. They don't need to be on the windows.
What's the deal with the windows? It seems to be the most popular status position in town to be sitting in. We have 400 reservations in an evening. What are the odds of you really getting a table on the windows? We pretty much have a heirarchy (based on) how many times a week you come in is the way it works. If you ask for it, we try to get you on those windows. You're never gonna get on there if you only came in once. If you ask for them, we'll try to get you there. It's just the right thing to do. We have people lie that they're having an anniversary. Then you look back at their history, and they've had four anniversaries this year. It's pretty crazy. Every time this guy comes in he has a birthday. We do try to cater to people for special occasions, because they're looking for that above and beyond experience.
What was it like having Daniel Boulud in? It was an honor. It really was. Didn't think I'd recognize him. When I saw him get up out of his car, wow. Did you not know that he was coming? No, not at all. He just showed up? Yeah. I knew he was in town. We did a luncheon at Ibiza the day before. He came in for lunch before his big dinner on Saturday. Actually a very laid-back guy. You could tell he knows what he's doing, just walking in and looking at everything.
Do you get any other celebrities? We get Beyonce's dad. We get a lot of the Houston Texans players in here. The ACL doctor for the Texans sends a lot them. He's a really good customer for all the Clark/Cooper Concepts. Our whole wine program I think we get a lot of celebrities just because of what we do. You know how that works? We don't really mark it up like most of the steakhouses do, three or four times. Our markup is right over retail, basically. You can afford a better bottle of wine or you can get a really nice bottle of wine for a really good price. I actually sell Veuve Clicquot cheaper than you can get it anywhere else in town. Even retail. I hate to use a big label like that, but people understand that. I sell it for $48. It's pretty unique. I sell a lot of it, too. (Laughs). People come here to celebrate? Yeah, they don't stop at one bottle. They feel like they're getting ready to celebrate. They kinda loosen up. They don't have to sip on a bottle of wine because they don't want to pay $400 for a great bottle of wine. It becomes, bring us another bottle. Or let's try something else. It seems to work out for us.
Who are your VIPs? I don't want to say everyone's a VIP, because you're lying if you say that. I heard you were in here, and we actually went on the website. I think you tweeted Amanda after you were done. I thought I recognized that guy. We try to show everyone a good time. You said you might not come back at eight on a Friday night or whatever it was, but that's kind of the ambiance we want. We like to have a lot of energy. VIPs, we try to accommodate them to where they're hanging out with all their other friends. Most of these people know each other. River Oaks has been very good to us. We have a lot of repeat customers. We try to build on that every single day. You sit down we try to know what you're doing. If you don't want to be bugged, we don't bug you. VIPs, we don't really do anything different for them. It's the same for everybody that comes in here.
Amanda sometimes tweets funny requests that people make. It seems like your policy is to say yes to everything people ask for. If I can make it happen, I'll do it. I have gone and bought banana pudding at Kroger for a guy and doctored it up and served it to him. Have you ever told anybody no, we can't do it? If I don't have the product or I can't get the product, I have to say no. I don't really like the word no. The word no is not perceived to be a good word. I just try to word it a different way. But you can't do everything for everybody.
What else do people ask for other than food? Usually, it's keeping the kitchen open. We'll be closed for an hour, but we'll go back there and find something for you to eat. If you're hungry, we'll make it for you if we can. French fries, it can take a long time to heat up a big vat of grease, but we'll do it. It's usually bar customers looking for some sort of snack. We try to keep people feeling welcome coming here. All of a sudden you hear last call, the restaurant's closed. This place literally still has energy going on at one o'clock on a Friday night, Saturday night. You can always come by here and there's someone here. I've been lucky. I've worked with other managers that run people out of your restaurant, but my AGMs understand it and they get it. We're here to please the customer, and I'll stay here the extra hour if I have to.
We've had River Oaks parties, and they've left the party cause they didn't have enough appetizers. It's been 11 o'clock, and we close at nine on a Monday. They come here. Can we get something to eat, cause they didn't serve any food at that party? We'll figure it out.
You haven't been open that long, but you seem very well integrated with the neighborhood. Would you say you've replaced La Griglia? I'd say we fit in well. I don't know about replace. You can't replace La Griglia. They still have their regular clientele. I'm not gonna act like we're doing anything different than they are. But you've been embraced? 100 percent. We're lucky. It boils down to we're lucky in this location. We're lucky in the way we operate. It's like you said, that word, no, people remember it. It's like telling a kid no. He may not do it. He may not go back to it. It's like being a host in your own house is the way you have to look at it. Whenever you have people over and they see that bottle of wine up there, do you say no, or do you open it up? It's one of those things. Then again, it depends on the person.
What is the one gatekeeper tool necessary for you to do your job? Communication, 100 percent. Even on a busy night, if you don't communicate with the guests, if you don't understand they're waiting, you have to let them know. We've got you. They understand. They know you're busy. You can go to any restaurant on a Saturday night. We don't like people waiting, but we do like the energy we get whenever we have people in here. I'm not gonna say we overbook, but we do have a lot of walk-ins. It feels busier than what they really think it is. Our turn time is very high and very fast. We can put a good meal in you and turn that seat twice. Two turns after eight o'clock is hard to do. Usually, people are in that seat until at least 11.