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.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Angela Underhill began working front of house at Zig Zag last month, after owners Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty tired of managing on their own. Though some worried that business would suffer after Murray Stenson's move to Canon last year, business at Zig Zag remains brisk. While new to her position as maître d at Seattle's longtime cocktail haven, Underhill has worked in the restaurant business for over twelve years. You will find her at Zig Zag on Friday and Saturday nights and at Cafe Campagne on others. Here, we find out more about Underhill and her favorite haunts.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I fell in love with working in the restaurant industry 12 years ago as a busser at a small Italian restaurant in Edmonds. I was really shy at the time, and bussing was perfect because you didn’t really have to talk to the guests. The thought of directing the flow of a “floor, and having to be the ‘voice’ scared me. A year later I started working at Ponti Seafood Grill, and moved into the position of Host.
Under the tutelage of several seasoned maitre d’s, I came out of my shell and fell in love with running the front desk. Over the years I’ve worked all over Seattle from The Barking Frog in Woodinville to Barrio on Capitol Hill, and most currently Café Campagne and Zig Zag. Every venue is different, but my goals are the same; weather it is simply for a cocktail before a show, or an intimate birthday dinner, every occasion is important, and I want the guests to have an incredible experience.
It's 8pm on a Saturday. How long's the wait for a party with no reservations?
Saturday is one of our biggest nights. It does build with a crescendo and so at the 8:00 hour, there is a fair amount turnover and so we usually have some openings at that time. As the night progresses, the wait can develop.
Any recent celebrity sightings?
We have had Howie Mandell, John Malkovitch, and Edward James Olmos come by in the last year.
Tell us about some of your favorite regulars.
The Zig Zag customer break down tends to be about 60% regulars 40% newer clientele except for Saturdays where everything seems to be a little different. Our best regular customers are those that come in to enjoy each other and enjoy what we offer whether it be cocktails, spirits, jazz, of conversation. That makes for the best vibe and those are our favorite regulars and there are many of them.
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
Unlike a traditional restaurant where you can estimate guests will dine for about two hours, at Zig Zag the ‘dining’ times are unpredictable. This makes it fun challenge to calculate wait times, and get creative with seating. I am constantly trying to be two steps ahead about where I’m going to seat the next guests that walk through the door. But, also being aware my plan might need a last minute revision, and being able to be creative in a timely, calm manner. It may sound stressful to some, but I love it, and I live for the challenge.
What are your personal favorite menu items/cocktails?
I’m a bourbon girl, and I love when the bartenders get crafty and mix up something
unique for me. I love ordering a bunch of small plates, the bruschetta with the calamari, meat & cheese plate and a green salad. Delightful.
What about when you're not at work? Where do you like to eat and drink?
On my days off I love to relax, and unwind. I have my usual spots, Café Campagne for brunch, Marche has a fantastic, unique wine list, Barrio for Mexican and delicious cocktails, Ponti is my go-to place for an after work cocktail and happy hour, and Café Presse anytime of the day for meals with my friends. If I am going to get dressed up and dine then I usually like to try new places. Most recently a friend and I had an incredible dining experience at RN 74, and a few months before that I celebrated my birthday with a stunning meal at Hitchcock on Bainbridge island. Both dinners left me happy to be alive and looking forward to going back.
So, what's your most important gatekeeper tool?
Effective communication is paramount. Things can get crazy busy so it’s important to be communicative with my co-workers about what I need to get the next guest seated in a timely fashion. And with the guests its important to make them feel welcome but at the same time eloquently and respectfully express that while I don’t have a table available at the moment we can get you started with a drink, and get your name on the waitlist.
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