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.
Jeff Watanabe [Photo: S. Pratt / ESEA]
Carolin Messier's Harvest Vine has bee serving Basque-style tapas on East Madison Street since opening in 1998. This week, Eater Seattle interviews Jeff Watanabe, General Manager of the Harvest Vine, for a little background and intel on how to get a coveted seat in the small jewel box restaurant. Watanabe has been in the Vine family for 6 years, first as a part-time server, then as General Manager for both the Harvest Vine and the now shuttered Txori.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you landed at the Vine.
The funny thing is that the last restaurant where I was the General Manager was Cafe Flora, which is just down the street. I haven't even left the neighborhood! When I first started working there, Carolin [Messier] was the pastry chef, which is how we first met. That was in 1994, and she opened the Vine in 1998.
What's the busiest time at the Vine?
Busiest times are Friday and Saturday from 6:30-9 p.m., and that's where our expansion comes in really handy. There are 18 seats in the original upstairs area, and another 50 in the addition downstairs, so we have more tables to seat people during the prime hours.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday. How long's the wait for a party with no reservations?
The wait isn't as long as people think it might be. In most instances we can get people seated within about 20 minutes but it occasionally gets up to 45 minutes or so. If you make a reservation, you'll automatically be seated downstairs. If you want to sit upstairs, it's first come first seated.
How do you handle the wait?
We're happy to serve wine to people who are waiting!
Tell us about some of your favorite regulars.
My most favorite stories about regulars all have to do with the plaques on the bar. When people have been coming in regularly for years, we put a plaque on the bar with their name on it. Some people have been coming in once a week since the restaurant opened! We had one person that was visiting from out of town who came in every day for 99 straight days, every day that they were in Seattle, and they have a plaque. Lots of newer regulars want to know what they have to do get their name on the countertop and tell them to just keep coming in once a week for the next couple of years and see what happens!
Any recent celebrity sightings?
Most recently, both Kenny Loggins and Kenny G were in. When Meeru Dhalwala was researching the Seattle for Shanik, we were happy to see her here. And Wiley Dufresne has been in as well.
What's a typical meal you eat when you're on the clock?
Most often, the beet salad. It's light and fresh and low cal because it's just beets and olive oil and seasoning. I'll eat that with some bread to sop up the dressing and wash it down with a Pellegrino.
What would be your dream dinner here?
I would order one of everything! In the past, I've worked in restaurants where I've recommended that people steer clear of certain menu items, but here everything on the menu is stellar, so choosing what to order is more about what you're in the mood for and not about what's good. And I think that if you asked everyone else who worked here that question, they would say exactly the same thing.
What about when you're not at work? Where do you like to eat and drink?
It's hard to get out very often because I'm in the industry and usually working so much. I love Maneki. It's the only restaurant that we go to regularly. Spinasse is, by far, one of my favorite restaurants in town but we save that for special occasions. I also really love Poppy and their Northwest twist on Indian food. And Revel! I've really loved it every time I've been there.
How did you go about hiring your staff?
We have an extraordinary team here, and are fortunate to have a very low turnover. If we do need to hire someone, I usually ask my staff if they have any friends looking for a position. If that doesn't work, I'll put an ad on Craigslist.
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
I think our biggest challenge was prior to the expansion, just having enough space for people. Having the extra seating in the basement has really been a game changer. Particularly this time of year, because we have larger holiday parties booked almost every night of the week up until Christmas—coordinating the special occasion parties is a big challenge that's been much easier with our addition.
So, what's your most important gatekeeper tool/secret weapon?
It's no secret, and everyone knows it: A charming smile will get you far!
— By Darlin Gray