Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, Eater's 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, 8/9]
Birch & Barley and its upstairs sister bar ChurchKey have been around Logan Circle for what's creeping up on two years now. And still somehow the wait for the restaurant's weekend brunch and dinner still places it among the more challenging tables in town. That's where hostess Sara Seanor comes in. We recently sat down with her to find out her tips on making your wait a little easier, how to make your own happy hour and avoiding lines at brunch.
Say it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait?
Depending on the party size, if you come in with two people we have a lot more walk-in spaces. Two people take less time to dine. So for two people it might get up to an hour and a half. For a larger party, four to six people, it can sometimes get to two hours. But we have the full beer menu upstairs and downstairs so you're not going to be bored while you're waiting.
Is there anything you can say or do to make your wait shorter?
You can go upstairs. You can get the full menu upstairs, too. So if you really have to snack on something, tater tots, that definitely makes it a little bit more entertaining. Plus TVs upstairs.
Has anybody ever tried to slip you money or gifts to get in faster?
I've not had that. I have had people say, "Oh you can just ask them to move, right?" Move the tables. No. I'll give you a pager. People definitely do that.
And tell me a little bit about some of your favorite customers or your regulars.
I love it when Pat from Arcadia [Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture] comes down. She's a sweetheart. She always brings a bunch of food people. Those ladies, they're really nice. Zeke Emanuel comes in. He's really nice. There's a lot more regular regulars upstairs. They're always fun because they're in the mood to just enjoy themselves.
So how do you deal with VIPs when you don't have any tables to give them?
We might be able to move some stuff around more upstairs we have, as soon as that happens we'll let a server know in a section, "As soon as this person gets up, block that table because we need this in like 10 minutes."
So you use the upstairs space?
If it's a VIP we will block off a table upstairs. Especially if its one of the investors.
What's the most outrageous request that you have not been able to accommodate?
I have had people call in — because we are a small dining area — people call in for large parties. One person called and asked me what our capacity was upstairs. It kind of sounded a little bit like she was bringing a lot of people. I asked her and she said, "Oh, just a thousand." Oh my God, that's a lot of people. I get a lot of questions about large parties. OK, we'll just push these tables together, blah blah blah. It's all about moving around. Not having a happy hour, people get a little bit confused by that sometimes.
Do they yell at you?
I've never been yelled at, but when someone gets upset for not having the deals, we do our beers in four-ounce tasters. So that's a way to let people know you don't have to get a full glass of beer. You can just get a small amount and that's kind of like a happy hour because it's going to be cheaper and you still get to try all the beers. That makes people happy.
What's the most outrageous request you have accommodated?
We had a party one time that took up our large table and then they kept growing. It was like 10:30 and closing. It was like, "You really want to hang out with your friends, but I want to go to bed." We usually have to get people to go upstairs when that starts happening because our cooks need to go home, too. That was one of the weird ones. We had kept the garage door open and they were trying to expand on the patio when I have a waitlist. "Stop, there's too many of you!" That was weird because they were up and walking around, too, so it was kind of helter-skelter.
Does it get crowded up here at the front?
Usually only if that happens. The area where it will be crowded is back by the bar. We request that people don't stand in the bar. It's uncomfortable for the other guests that are dining. And we have other people and they're just like "Oh yeah" and they realize they're sitting on this person's lap practically. It's pretty easy to get people to go upstairs. Usually people will just be like, all right, it's not that bad, and just take a pager and go upstairs. Like I said, things do open up.
Your brunch here is pretty popular. What's the wait like here for brunch?
For brunch, two people it takes like an hour or an hour and 15. All the brunch food is really quick to make. it comes out pretty quickly and it's usually a consistent average. It will take an hour for two; for three or four, it's maybe like an hour-and-a-half. So that's usually if we're full that's just the wait time. All right, I have this table, it's going to be gone. When they're done you can sit down. We have a smaller brunch upstairs too, an abbreviated version of our downstairs menu. So I'll tell people, if you're worried about the wait, come around noon when Churchkey opens so if you can't get in downstairs, you can still have chicken-and-waffles, the Luther and french toast all upstairs. So it's a pretty good compromise.
We have people line up outside that window. That's a weird thing that happens when I'm here during the day. People come and stare and they don't realize they're actually staring at me. It's like, "Do I move?" Especially for brunch. That's when we do get a line straight out the door. We tell them we open up at 11 and they want to get there early. We're first-come-first-served.
Do you usually book up?
Oh yeah. For Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, we usually book up maybe like a week ahead of time. It gets to Thursday or Friday and people are calling for larger tables and we're not going to be able to get them in until after our break sometimes, so 5 p.m. But I've had some people that are like, "Wait, so you do brunch all day?" So you can technically come in at 5 and still get brunch. There's either people that love the all-day brunch or it just rubs them the wrong way.
How does it rub them the wrong way?
Not being able to have our full menu. A lot of people want a tasting menu.
So what do you eat when you're not here?
The most that I've actually eaten out is I go upstairs and get our grilled cheese because I love it. Otherwise, I have a lot of friends that are into organic... They bring over a lot of ingredients and we usually do some potluck. They bring over bottles of wine, we have a grill. It's pretty fun. I prefer doing that because I get to make food with friends. I'm not the best chef but it still tastes good.
What's the one gatekeeper tool you'd say you most need to do your job?
Taking control of the conversation and making sure you communicate well with a guest because it's good to get everything done, but if a guest doesn't know that you're running around trying to get stuff done... I usually let people know every five minutes, "I was doing this, this is going to happen, then we're going to do this. Don't worry, we'll get you out of here." Just being very communicative with people it turns the situation that could have been not very good and turn it into something positive, especially when you walk up and plop down a free drink for them. You always kind of feel bad when things don't go quite the way when even you expected them to go. So just letting people know that you're trying and that it will happen soon.