Welcome to 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.
Reservationist Kate Johnson has been with the celebrated Jerry Traunfeld
restaurant, since it opened in the summer of 2008. We asked her what it's like getting a table at Poppy right now and the the art of front of house.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night: what's the wait for a table?
It really depends on your party size. If you are four or less and over 21, we can probably make it happen in the bar right away, otherwise probably an hour for a table in the dining room. We also have a couple little funky two tops tucked in corners or behind poles that we don’t reserve because some people turn their noses up. I think they have character, and if your table is going to ruin your dining experience you should reexamine your company.
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
Keeping our standards really high. The smoother things are going and the more consistent the food is, the easier it is to get complacent about everyone’s performance (including mine). Every now and then we have to step back and look at what we can do to make sure we are exceeding expectations and that our goals keep evolving.
Do you see many VIPs or local celebs?
We've had your standard Tom Skerritt appearances, and Dana Delaney came in once during SIFF. Also, Lauren Ambrose during the filming of her last movie, Jewel when she was on tour, and we hosted the Seattle premier of “Conviction” so Juliette Lewis and Tony Goldwyn came in for that.
What are your personal favorite things on the current menu?
We have a duck salad on the starter menu which affirms my belief that duck is its own food group, and I love what the guys are doing with mushrooms right now. They’re everywhere and they’re amazing.
When you're not at Poppy, where are you eating or drinking?
My boyfriend and my current fave is the Walrus and Carpenter, and we just checked out Canon which was awesome. Both spots are doing a precious few things and they’re doing them flawlessly. Working in restaurants means we have very few evenings free to check out other restaurants, and it’s hard to want to spend time and money somewhere unless we’re fairly certain it’s a winner. We make a lot of decisions about where to go based on where our friends work and where we love the staff. Food brings people in, but atmosphere and front of house brings them back.
So, what's your most important gatekeeper tool?
Remembering that it’s just dinner. It’s hard to remember that when you’re in the thick of it and everyone is stressed and freaking out. I am simultaneously hosting and managing on busy nights, and it is important to everyone that I stay in control and make it look easy- not just for the staff but for the guests. Sometimes my greatest challenge is keeping up the façade of grace and competence so that everyone else can feel secure that it’s all going according to plan (even when it’s not). No matter what’s going wrong during service, one way or another it’s all going to be over soon. People will eat and leave, nobody will get hurt, and more often than not everyone is happy at the end of the day.