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Brandon Busch of La Griglia on 20 Years in River Oaks

[Photos: Gary R Wise]

For over 20 years, upscale, Italian-American restaurant La Griglia has served as a home away from home for River Oaks residents. If Brasserie 19 is the young rookie making a splash in the big leagues, La Griglia is the crafty veteran that's still capable of a game-winning swing. For 21 years, manager Brandon Busch has presided over the dining room. Even when the restaurant changed owners from Tony Vallone to Tilman Fertita's Landry's Restaurant Group, the crowd stayed. Here, Busch discusses his favorite customers, the bus boy jacket blur guests sometimes see and La Griglia's famous Halloween party.

What is your favorite place to sit in the dining room? Probably table 20. Which one is table 20? Table 20 is the table that's right on the other side of the pizza station. Because you can sit there, and not a lot of people can see you, but you can see the whole dining room from there. That's the "indictment table." That's where many of the, over the years, some of these people that I'm not gonna name any names, some are not with us anymore, some are in Federal prison. That's where a number of them sat. There are some customers that will not sit at that table because of that reason.

You know who sat there last night? Tommy Lee Jones. Just not a very social guy.

Saturday night, what's the wait like for a table? Depends on time of year. This is a big restaurant, ya know, we've got a ton of tables. In season, from October to June, could be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.

How big is this restaurant? 7500 square feet. How many can you seat? Main dining room. I can get 200. Party room holds 80. Bar seats 100. Patio seats 100. Once we're all in, every ass is in a chair, we can be right at 350, which is a lot of people.

Is there anything people say to try to shorten the wait? Oh God, yeah. Like what? You know, it's my birthday. Somebody's sick. I called; you have my reservation, even though we don't take them for parties less than five. And I don't care. Ya know, I let them play the game. I play the game with them, but the thing about this restaurant is you turn them so fast nobody's ever going to have a tremendous wait. Plus, it's a ball in the bar. If you're in the bar, I'm going to be swinging by and talking to you and letting you know what's going on. How long it's going to be. Letting you know that we're trying.

Does anyone ever offer you money or gifts to jump the line? It's part of the business. Does it work? Sure, it works.

Who are your favorite customers? Individually? Either individually or more like a class of people. I've been associated with this restaurant, in January it will be 21 years at this place. So I know tons of faces. And, I'm better with what people drink than what their names are or what people eat than what their names are. I enjoy all people. I think that honestly every person that walks through the door is important. I like the challeneges. I like the people that are tough. The challenege for is to make that tough guy that came in here pissed off, expecting the worse, is to see if I can get that guy to smile. If I can get that guy to smile, it's job well done.

The clientelle is so diverse. I've been here so long. It's hard to say what who my favorite customer is. Sometimes I like working the Sunday nights just because I don't get to work them that often anymore. I love to work them cause it's a slower pace, and it's a clientelle that only comes on Sundays. Saturday night you don't know what you're going to get. Could be people from the area. Could be people from outside the loop. Lots of people that celebrate special occasions here. You see sparklers going around the room all the time, but during the week at lunch is when you see the people that are on the social scene here. I love playing with them. I love playing with everybody.

Has it changed over time? Has that scene kind of moved to Brasserie 19? Brasserie and I share the same clientelle. I'm sure there's folks they get that I don't get, or I get that they don't get. But for the most part, it's the same faces. We're only a block away from each other. It was the same when Mandola's was down there.

Besides death, divorces, people moving away, I've been taking care of the same people for all these years. I've seen people grow up. I've seen people grow old. I mean, in your case, for example. I came here for prom, if you want to get real specific about it. We were, like, 21 kids right there. You know, and another thing, kid's bat mitzvahs that I've done, I've done their rehearsal dinners. I've done kid's baby brunches for baby namings. Those kids are teenagers now.

How do you handle VIPs when there's a wait? Sarcasm, wit. Get 'em occupied. I swear once you did the Goodfellas things where you flew a table in out of the middle of nowhere. If there's enough square feet in this restaurant, a table will come in from over your head and be plopped down. We're in the business of making it happen. We're not in the business of saying no. At any given time in this restaurant, you'll see a white bus boy jacket blur going across the parking lot, hauling ass to Kroger, picking up something that somebody wants.

What do people ask for? What don't they ask for is the better answer to your question. What's the most memorable thing you've said yes to? I had a mariachi band come through the middle of the dining room last minute. I pick up meats and fish for people all the time. How about in the past month? Customer came in on his first date and was playing around. I was walking by and the date said something like "I bet they don't have a Mr. Goodbar." So I sent a bus boy over to Kroger, and for dessert we sent out Mr. Goodbar. She was quite shocked.

Does Tilman come here? Do his friends come here? Do they get special treatment? Tilman's a lot easier to take care of than some of the clientelle. I have clientelle that haven't looked at a menu here in 10 or 15 years. It's all about what they want.

I'm old school. I was trained by Tony Vallone. Where I'm not a manager of a restaurant, I'm a maitre d at a restaurant. I'm at your table with you. I'm not in the office looking at TV screens or anything like that. We still handle the business end of it, but when people are here, I'm on the floor. I'm taking your orders. I'm selling you your wine. I'm reading your mood. See if you want to play or you want to be serious today. It's all about reading people. That's why we get all of our return business, because we're customer-oriented. It's not about us, what La Griglia does. It's about the customer.

Do you think it's changed since it was sold? Sure, there are some changes that have been made. Some for the better. Remodeled the bar, remodeled the kitchen. Tilman pumped a lot of money into this place. Has it changed? I don't think La Griglia's changed. I think Houston's changed. Back when I first started here, we were one of the few restaurants you would go to before the theater. Now look at how many restaurants are between me and the theater. Look at downtown. That used to stop here.

Now Houston's more of a culinary town. Back then there weren't that many restaurants to go to. You had Carrabba's, you had Tony's, Houston's over there off of Westpark. There wasn't a lot of restaurants. There wasn't Mark's and Da Marco and all these restaurants on Washington Avenue. Just the competition wasn't there.

Marco Wiles started here, didn't he? He did not start here. He worked at Grotto, but he was here for a long time. Mark is a great guy. He and I had a lot of fun together. Chef Mark Cox and I had a lot of fun together. Those two guys taught me a lot about food. They're both hilarious individuals, really funny guys.

I know you don't like to say no, but what have you said no to? I really don't say no a lot. I can't remember the last time I said no. Maybe Halloween night during the party somebody asked me a for sexual favor, and I said no (laughs). I can't honestly tell you. Maybe on the phone, somebody asked, do you have valet parking on Saturday lunches, when we're closed or something like that. But when a customer's in front of me, I can't remember. I'm sure I have.

The Halloween party is kind of mythical. Who goes to that? It's a mix of Houston. First off, you get a lot of the people on the social scene. People who want to be on the social scene and all their friends. It's a group. I might know 70% of them, because it's too hard to get a table. It's just a mess. I started that party on this patio in 1995 with a DJ and 30 people. Now we're doing 1,000 people through the doors, we've got six bars, and we've done nothing to promote this party except open the doors.

It's a nightmare. It's a mess. I mean, it's fun for the guests. It's a hell of a lot of work for my ass. I'm here from eight in the morning on Halloween until four in the morning and back at nine to clean up after everybody. It's a mess. People say it's one of the biggest parties in town. I don't know, because I've been here for the past 18 of them. So I don't know what other people are doing.

What is the one Gatekeeper tool necessary for you to do your job? A sense of humor. I rarely get stuck at tables. I can usually get them laughing and keep moving. There's too much to do to spend too much time at one table. You gotta have wheels. You've got to be able to get around. A little bit of sarcasm, a little bit of wit.

You know, this isn't brain surgery. People don't come here to be serious about dining. It's about fun. It's about theater. Too many restaurants get lost into here's what the chef's serving tonight, here's what we're doing. We're all about what do you want. We're not about us. We're not going to guide you though the evening. You're going to guide us through the evening. Get the ego out of it.

All we are, we have this at our meetings all the time, from the front of the back, all we are is servants. That is all we are. We are not here to give any kind of direction to anybody.

Does it ever surprise you that you're essential to the life of this neighborhood? I think it's egocentric to say I'm essential to the life of anywhere. I like people to feel at home. I like people to have fun. I don't think I'm essential. I think every person at every restaurant is replaceable. I just think I've been around. Not many people stick around as long as I have.

What do you attribute that to? I love this place. This is my wife. Sometimes she can be a bitch.

La Griglia

2002 W Gray Street, Houston, TX 77019 713 526 4700

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