Welcome to The Gatekeepers, Eater's latest feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
[R. Lopez, 6/27]
Washingtonians waited for years for the return of Fabio Trabocchi. Now that the former Maestro chef has done just that with Fiola's April opening, his fans have been rewarding him with booked tables night after night. But it's his wife Maria Trabocchi who keeps things moving at the door and on the floor — along with her "partner in crime," general manager Federico Galeotti. We recently sat down with these two to find out what it's like getting a table on a weekend night at the Penn Quarter restaurant.
How many seats do you have here?
MT: We have 120 and then another extra 50 seats or so in the outdoor patio.
And which are your favorites?
MT: I think my super favorite is Table 62, one of these round banquettes, a super large one. I call it the Sex and the City table because it's the perfect table — you sit very close together and you see the entire room and it's almost like you see everyone, you can talk about everybody like they would do in the movie. To me, it's a very New York table. FG: My favorite tables are the booths in the center dining section, but what's currently my favorite is at the front dining section when we do private parties. It's turned into the hot spot because you've got the windows at the front. When the weather's nice, you can open up those windows. It feels a little different. It almost feels like you're part of the restaurant still, but at the same time you're secluded and having fun with your group.
Say it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday. What's the wait to get a table?
MT: If you're a walk-in, unless you're eating at the bar or there's any table outside available at 8 p.m., there's no chance you can sit down at least until 9:30 because really we normally don't have any no-shows or cancellations. People make the reservations way in advance and we confirm all of them before arrival. FG: But at the front dining area, we try to not make reservations in there. If there's not a big party, we can get pretty lucky and accommodate the individuals that are walk-ins. What's also helped us out in summertime is we try not to book outside. But we also take care of our clients. If we see them waiting over a certain amount of minutes, we'll offer a free glass of prosecco or try to get some food at the bar at least because the most important thing is just having a little bit of food in your stomach. Hospitality is a priority, but there's only so many you can do with four square walls.
Is there anything you can say or do to make your wait shorter?
MT: Obviously, myself and Fabio are the only ones that can really squeeze somebody in. You have to know us or it has to be one of our regulars. I have done that. Obviously it's not going to be at 7:30 p.m., but I can work my magic. It's not like we're sold out to the point where we risk having bad service or we risk not being able to accommodate you. FG: We know we have VIPs in town, we know we have high-end politicians in town, but we've always come from a background that we try to treat everybody equal. We all started the same way. Fabio from the bottom of the kitchen to the top and me from the bottom of the floor to the top. So we treat everybody the same way.
And since you've been open, has anyone tried to slip any money or gifts to get a table faster?
MT: Not yet. I was waiting for that. I have received flowers afterward for being nice enough to accommodate somebody. But no money, no chocolates. Diamonds, no. But I don't work that way anyway. If you give me a $20 bill just to squeeze you in, I don't think it's fair. I'd rather you be more genuine and have a real thing like, "Oh, it's my anniversary, I'm dying here. Help me out." If I know the person, I'll definitely try to help them as if they were my friends. But I think if somebody tried to bribe me that way, I would get offended. FG: I guess a lot of the VIPs see that I'm the general manager so it's not really a maitre d' type of scenario. So no money has been exchanged.
Tell me about some of your favorite customers.
MT: We have so many that are regulars already. We have a few that come almost daily in the afternoon and they sit outside and it's almost like they've come to their home. And it's very nice. They sit outside, they have glasses of wine, even up til 8 on a daily basis. And then they end up smoking cigars once there's no customers around. So those are fun guys to be with. Most of them are, I would say, politicians. They work on the Hill or as lawyers. My guess is that many of them just live here during the week then go home on the weekends. And so they gather together because they don't want to go home to an empty apartment and cook. FG: Also, I'd have to say for me, coming from New York, it's definitely the politicians, the lobbyists, to understand that whole dynamics. I come from Rome originally. The center of politics is definitely there, but it's a different kind of politics than American politics. But definitely still the same core center of how they think. Let's just say I enjoy my politicians more for dinner than for lunch. At lunch they're more serious, but for dinnertime they're definitely extremely friendly and open and you understand how they got the votes.
Can you name any names?
MT: No because we try to be super careful about that. But both parties, I would say. Top of the Republican and Democratic parties.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left?
MT: I tell them the bar is the only option. And some have done that. They will just come and have a drink and something to eat at the bar until a table becomes available. We have a really big bar, so it does help. It's really hard, especially Fridays and Saturdays, it's like every party has to go through me. I will maybe always have one little table hanging there just for me for last minute. But I try to accommodate as many as I can. And they don't have to be VIPs. Many times people will call and it's just a regular Joe and be like, "I really need this or I would really like to try," and I try to do that. FG: I've got to say we're pretty good at that because they can contact us on our cell phones. They've been kindly asked to at least give us a little bit of a heads up, especially over the weekend when we do get packed, so we're able to set it up beforehand. A lot of VIPs ask for specific tables and we can pretty much accommodate them. We try to make the magic happen, but within our own capabilities. But we're pretty good. We've almost got a strategy to it. MT: And also OpenTable is limited. So we can take in a lot of the phone calls. We want to control the book, not Open Table. It's a great tool for us to have the reservations and all that, but there are many parties and many slots that will be blocked from OpenTable directly and only we are allowed.
And what's the most outrageous request that you've been able to accommodate?
MT: So far nothing crazy. I've had people that for their anniversary dinner they wanted to have like a 15-course menu, a tasting menu with wine pairings. They only lasted seven. FG: I made up a table. We had a little bit of space, but we didn't have a table in the back here. I had to find another table and place it there and the client was extremely happy. That's probably the most eccentric and the fastest I've ever resolved a problem. In five minutes. MT: We have changed the lounge area from having sofas and all that in the same night for extra tables. Just moved the sofas out, put another table, make another table. All within five minutes and without anybody noticing.
What's the most outrageous request you've not been able to accommodate?
MT: Somebody wanted to buy bottles of Cristal champagne to be packaged to go as gifts. But then they didn't even have an event here and I said we cannot do that. But to me it was kind of weird. Go to a store. Don't come here. I don't think that's legal. We don't sell champagne to go. Believe me, I would have loved to because Cristal champagne is one of the most expensive champagnes. You can get it, but you have to drink it. We have to pop it for you. There's people that always try and say, "Oh, I've been there many times. I know Fabio. I used to go to Maestro. I'm a big fan, I know Fabio very well." I don't think so. And I'm like "What's your name again?" And I don't know them. If I don't know them, most likely Fabio's not going to know them either. So everybody tries to pull that one every single weekend. FG: Sunday is our religious day off and that's when all of us get to breathe. There's maybe a call for a breakfast on a Sunday, the small request that you want to take care of, but we believe hugely in our employees and they're like a family here. Even God took a day off. So I think the Fiola team can take one day off.
Where are you eating when you're not here?
MT: Last night we had dinner at Sonoma, Fabio and I and our daughter — our fiola. It was absolutely stunning. I like to go to Proof. I like to go to Estadio. I'm from Spain, so I really like their tapas. It makes me feel like I'm in Madrid. We've gone a couple times to Michel in Tysons Corner for brunch Sundays. It brings back memories. FG: I've done a few places. I love Proof and Estadio. Estadio is very cute. When you close the doors you really feel like you're in Spain. But I've also done the high-end restaurants. I've tried Marcel's with the boudin blanc. It was delicious. Best boudin blanc I've ever had. MT: Zaytinya, Jaleo... All of the José Andrés restaurants are always fun. FG: The only problem is you can't go with Fabio because if they discover he's there then they overfeed you like the Monty Python movie. That's also another beautiful thing that I don't see in any other city is this: The industry itself really loves each other. There's a camaraderie like from the general managers to the managers to the kitchens. Co Co Sala, that was a really nice experience. MT: And also we eat at home, too. It feels good to eat at home. Lately I haven't, but normally we love it. Because the kids help. We go to the market together, we buy food, we clean it, we cook it. We always eat together on Sundays. Lately, we're just too tired to even think about cleaning up or actually cooking. We prefer to go out, but we still go as a family.
What do you think is the one gatekeeper tool that you need the most to do your job?
MT: You need to really know your limitations because you don't want to over-promise something that you cannot do. You can always try to use magic, but magic doesn't always work. But to me it's to really understand your room, your tables, your customer. If you don't know who your customer is, you don't know how long they're going to eat or what they're going to want. At nighttime I try to be always there to greet everybody because then I understand — when I see them walking in, when I see them talking to the hostess — who they are and what they want. You have to know how to anticipate our guests. It takes years to do that and that's why I like to be there most of the time and that's why I stop by to see everyone and talk to them. I like to get to know our customers. FG: As general manager that's a hard question because basically my favorite phrase is "figuring out the formula to keep chaos together." You're a toilet attendant all the way to general manager, in a sense. But the most important thing that I love about Fabio and myself and also Maria is systems. It gets as narrow as how to put forks and knives on the table. Where the glasses stand, where the salt is. Literally a checklist. Because you can't go wrong. Even my six-year-old daughter can do it. It makes consistency and also gives us the opportunity that the day we expand, those systems are already in place. That's what makes owners that have multiple restaurants a success, it's only from the systems being put in place.
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