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.
Four nights a week, Nikki Worley manages Knee High Stocking Co.'s incoming text messages ? the only way to make a reservation at the Prohibition-themed sliver of a bar. Ring the nondescript doorbell and Worley, dressed in the venue's namesake hosiery, will poke out her head, politely, but effectively barring entrance until she's confirmed your intentions are of the cocktail variety. Knee High opened two years ago, but scoring a table on a weekend night still requires a little commitment, planning, or sheer luck.
It’s 8 p.m. on Saturday night. What’s the wait for a table? It really depends, since we are such a small place. We get booked up the day before, but if we do get cancellations, we’re able to squeeze in a few walkups on the weekends. Last Saturday we had a 10-top cancel at 9:00, but that was fine because we had people who walked up just 15 minutes before. With it being light so late now, we’re getting our bumps a little later, around 10 p.m.
Why the text message-only reservation system? It comes in handy, it really does. There’s always a chance when you’re talking with a guest on the phone that you won’t hear a number correctly, so it’s nice to have all the information written out. Our house rules ask that people don’t use the phone. It adds to the ambiance of the whole speakeasy style, and quiet communication is appreciated.
We keep every number in our phone, which helps us keep track of regulars. We get to remember people and see their names and we know who’s coming in advance. We have certain aphorisms we use for different people, and we give people nicknames once and again. If I get a text on a Friday night from Louie Angry Lap Dance, I know exactly who that person is, and why we've named him that.
Tell us the story. Louie’s one of my favorites. His wife is a burlesque dancer and he rented out the place for her birthday. We were joking that Gregg, our manager, would give her a lap dance. It turned into “Gregg gives a mean lap dance” and I jumped in and said, “yes, it’s very angry. It’s a very aggressive lap dance.”
Has the phone ever been lost? Not really. The only thing that happens sometimes is Gregg or Jack the owner will take it home with them. Then we’re like, “Oh my god we have no reservations?what’s going on?” Nobody’s ever misplaced, though sometimes it stops working, which is another issue entirely.
Do you even allow walk-ups? Absolutely. There are a certain amount of walkups we’re able to accommodate, especially during the week. We have people who walk up saying, “Is this a bar?” Occasionally we’ll have people ring the doorbell, just because the sign says, “ring the doorbell.”
How do you deal with requests from regulars when there are no tables left to give? Most of our regulars know to text ahead. If they happen to swing by without a reservation when we're full, we treat them like any other customer; which is to say, we do our best to make arrangements to get them in as quickly as possible. That may mean a wait of 15-30 minutes, but we try to be flexible with everyone and we'll text them when the space opens up.
What’s the strangest request you’ve received from a customer? Capitol Hill is a really interesting neighborhood. We have an eclectic mix of older clientele, but we do get the young 21-25 drinkers. One common request that comes out of that group, well, you may have seen in our house rules that we specify no drinks with Jäger. Once a gentleman asked, “so do you have Four Loko?” The rationale was sound—you’re a Prohibition-style bar, and Four Loko is being prohibited. I let him down gently. If you can find it in the 20s or 30s or along that vein, we’re likely to have it. If you can find it at a frat house, probably not.
And the speakeasy theme still works? More than a speakeasy style, I think a lot of people are looking for craft cocktails. This is a place where it will take a minute for your drink but it will be so worth it.