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.
For thirty years, Mimi Del Grande has presided over the dining rooms of her husband Robert's restaurants. First, at Cafe Annie and now at RDG + Bar Annie, Del Grande has hosted just about every power broken in Houston. RDG may have only ranked at 35 on Chronicle critic Alison Cook's top 100, but, for two generations of Houstonians, it remains one of the city's most iconic restaurants. Here, Mimi talks about helping her guests have a memorable experience and how some patrons use RDG's valet as a taxi service.
Where's your favorite place to sit in the restaurant? Oh, I don't really sit down. If I'm with a customer, talking to a girlfriend, that's my favorite place. I guess it's wherever somebody wants to listen to me.
What's the wait like at 8pm on a Saturday?It depends on the month and what's going on. Because I'm so fanatical, and after years of being yelled at, we try not to overbook. We confirm most parties. At most, it would be 10 or 15 minutes, because it's the second seating, of course. What about during Houston Restaurant Weeks? It was crazy. It was wild, because everybody's supposed to be doing everybody a favor. They're like "I don't want that table." It was funny how they assumed that because it was Restaurant Week wherever we were taking them was a Restaurant Week table. Did you have a Restaurant Week section? No, we just sat them wherever. Unless they'd been here before, because some people like bar dining and some people have their certain tables. If you'd been around or were familiar with the restaurant from going online, you could request grill room or the bar. If they were upset about being sat, I'd tell them you have to let us know.
Do people ever try to offer you money to jump the line? That used to be old-school. They don't do that anymore. Maybe 20 years ago. People would come in, especially people from New York, and get ready to shake your hand and give you a $20. I said you don't have to do that. We'll seat you no matter what. Years ago, definitely.
Who are your favorite customers? Anyone that's happy. They come in, they're pleasant. I want to make them happy. I want them to tell us what will make them happy. People come to eat, as my husband will say, they bring everything with them. You can't get upset if they're upset. It's not about the lunch or dinner. It's about their life. You can't get offended if they're not happy, because they might be going through something. Silence is ok, but I prefer not to be yelled at for no particular reason. There are customers who like to do that. I think they do that throughout their lives. I don't think they save it up for restaurants.
Do any celebrities come in? We do on and off all the time. Bad thing is I never know who the athletes are, so the guys have to tell me. We had a person with a Super Bowl ring in. I got to see the ring. Local TV personalities? We're lucky to know Dominique (Sachse). Her husband, Nick Florescu, is an investor of ours. One of their first dates was here.
What do you do for VIPs? Anybody we consider a VIP is somebody that comes really often that we know. We used to give out appetizers all the time, and they were a lot of work. Sometimes people would get it and they'd go "I'm allergic to shellfish." If we know the people, we know that they might like nachos. We'll send out a couple nachos before they order. If people call and say, "I'm bringing some clients, can you do something special?" We can do it. You don't know unless people ask. I'd like people to ask, and we do it all the time. I used to be a concierge before the internet. People would say, "Can you call the theater and ask what time the movie starts?" It was wild.
What do you do for your friends? Is it different than what you do for VIPs? I don't have many friends, because I work all the time. We might send out some appetizers. He (Robert) has gin that he's making. He'll have them try it. We don't push that on everybody, but, a friend, we'll ask them to try it. After 30 years, it is kind of like a home. It sounds so cliché, I know. We're here night and day. If I have girlfriends that want to meet me, I'll just say "come after lunch, we'll have lunch."
What is the most outrageous request you've had to accommodate? I don't know if it's safe to say. There's always women asking who men are. They want to know names. That's always very interesting. I guess that's not too outrageous. I should have been ready for that one, because I've had some crazy things in this restaurant. What was the craziest thing one of the Enron guys ever asked for? I can't say names. That's the problem. Jeff Skilling's wife was our first bookkeeper, when he just got out of business school. I've known them since 1978. We saw a lot of that craziness at the old Cafe Annie: the first one and the second one. Life was really wild. I have to be careful because I don't want to say anything. I want people to know that if they ask I won't say. Off the record I'll tell you a lot.
At the old Cafe Annie, in 1980, I used to have a Rabbit convertible. This man was having lunch, and he went out into his car and he had a flat tire. I think he was European. I think he was English. He said, "I have to get downtown." He didn't have a spare tire and calling for a taxi would take 15 minutes. I said, here, take my car. Everybody thought I was crazy. Robert thought I was crazy. I didn't even get his name. I just gave him my keys. He was gone for three hours. Came back really happy. Called me a week later to tell me he got the job. He came in this restaurant when we first opened. He gave me his card. He's, like, VP of British Petroleum. He lives in London now. He tells everyone that story in all his management meetings about having faith in people. Isn't that wild?
Samir, our valet, has been working for us for 18 years. He's like family. Samir is so good. There are customers that would call Samir in the morning if they couldn't wake up to take their kids to private school. Samir would drive from his apartment to Memorial and then drive to St. John's for these people. Isn't that nice? He's a wonderful guy.
What do people ask for where you just can't do it? What's nice about the restaurant is it's not as crazy as the bar. If I'm at Taco Milagro on a Thursday, it's totally wild. At a restaurant, there's some civility to it. People are more civilized. When we first opened and the bar was so crazy, there were girls giving men their cards trying to take them to the restroom. It was so out of control that I had to close the restaurant early. I had to ask them to leave. I didn't know there were all friends. This older woman, about my age, came up to me and said "you don't know who you're dealing with. You can't ask us to leave." I said, who are you? She said, "I take care of these girls." I said, you have to leave. I thought, oh my gosh. This is a big business. I didn't know all these random girls all knew each other. They all work together? They all work together. I still have customers on Thursday nights that are mad at me for getting rid of The Show. That's what they call it. They said "Mimi, we had a fun time on Thursdays. We were fishing." I said, what do you mean fishing?" He said, "It's called catch and release." I said, I don't know with some of these girls if you could release them, because they looked very serious. It was wild. They would say something like "Let's go down the street to shop," because they wanted to go to Hermes. I'm so naïve. I thought, oh you're going to Hermes, that's amazing. My husband doesn't ever take me there. I didn't get it. It's merchandise instead of cash gifts.
What is the one gatekeeper tool necessary for you to do your job? My staff. I'm so proud of them. They are really friendly. They really treat everyone the same. I think that's it. Just don't view anyone differently. Everyone's a very important person. When I started this business, the waiters had a totally different attitude. Life was totally different in the 80s. One waiter said "Don't seat any women in my section." It's like, ok, that's not going to work.