Rikka Johnson is pretty well accustomed to dealing with celebrities and political bold-faced names after her 10 years with Wolfgang Puck restaurants, the last few spent as the general manager and main gatekeeper at The Source. The Penn Quarter restaurant is frequently recognized as being one of the city's top spots for power dining, and they've got the list to back it up: There have been reports of names from Oprah and Wolf Blitzer to John McCain and Rahm Emanuel passing through this dining room. And, of course, the President and First Lady stopped in here in January for Michelle Obama's birthday. Eater recently sat down with Rikka to learn what it's like dealing with all of Washington's VIP guests and how the regular joes among us can hope to get a table.
Which tables are your favorites?
Behind us in this corner nook, I call it the Jack Valenti table. I love it because it's very Washington—LA, which is Wolfgang in an essence. Or the restaurant here, rather. Jack Valenti was the president of the Motion Picture Association, but he was very, very political. You can sit in the corner and not be seen, but you can see everything that's going on. There's also tables upstairs, these love booths that we have upstairs. They're beautiful. They're quaint. I think they're romantic. There's also great corner nooks, again, if you're doing a business dinner. Or if you want something a bit quieter and discreet, we can put people there.
Say it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait?
As I said before, we've been open for eight years and that's one of the luxuries of just being open that long and knowing your books. For the guests who have reservations with us, there's not usually a wait. Because you might have 15 tables all at 8 o'clock, it just might be a moment or two until we get you upstairs. But for those who want to join us who just walked in — which, I think that's what everybody should do and that's sometimes how I dine, is just walking in — usually that might be a little bit of a wait. I'm always on the floor and seeing who's on entrees and who's on desserts. So I can manage the people who are waiting down here to get in as quickly as possible. And lo and behold they have to wait 10 minutes or 15 minutes, we have a great izakaya menu down here where they can have a sampling of Chef Scott [Drewno]'s food. The dumplings or the tempura green beans that are so popular or a sushi roll, so they can have a quick nibble before they hit the dining room upstairs.
Does it get filled down here, too?
The classic happy hour days, Wednesday or Thursday, it can be packed. It just depends on Saturdays because the residents of Penn Quarter... There's more people coming and living in this area and there's more restaurants popping up. I love it. I think it benefits us all.
Is there anything that one can say to make their wait shorter?
You know, it's fun because, again, you get to experience such great things down here with the izakaya menu or whatever, you don't really feel the wait.
Has anyone ever tried to slip you money or gifts to get in faster?
People say that and it doesn't really happen. But it's also the fun thing, the way that we get so many repeat guests. What I love about it is that people dine here and the best thing you can do is tell your friends what Chef Scott is cooking because we're so lucky to have the best chef in the city. Just enjoy yourself and tell your friends about it and come back. That's what you can do to reward us.
And how do you deal with your VIPs when you don't have any tables available?
Easy. You have to be flexible. You have to think quickly and you have to have a sense of humor and a smile. For me, your VIP guests and your loyal guests, that's who we're here for. And so we just have to think creatively and when all your options are taken up, you've got to figure something out. That's what sustains us. The most important people are the repeat guests and our loyal guests. I would do anything for them. So when we plan a book, it's how you can creatively manage your tables and add tables. You learn your floorplan and you learn what everybody can manage and you get flexible and you get creative. And you get your guests up there. That's what my job is.
So tell me about your favorite guests, the regulars and the VIPs.
We're lucky because we have like a whole Wolfgang crew. So a lot of guests from LA, we obviously have all politicians who I personally know from San Francisco or from all the places that we've worked. We're also incredibly well positioned between the White House and the Congress. So it's a great meeting point and there's a lot of meetings that go on here in some of those super-secret nooks. So it's always fun to see what's going on. A new experience for me in Washington is you have to be aware of when votes are and whatnot because sometimes in the middle of the night or the middle of the afternoon, you know there's a vote going on and you'll see this mass exodus. And then some people come back. It's really fun to watch and be a part of. And to see on the television everything that's directly going on — they're meeting about it in the restaurant. We're so lucky. It's probably my favorite experience of living here in Washington.
Do you have to memorize the congressional directory?
I'm very, very lucky that I came from more of a political background in San Francisco, so I kind of know some of the California players already. But with that, you've got to read the New York Times, you've got to read the Washington Post, you've got to read even the Wall Street Journal with all the business going on. You've got to watch television. We're attached to the Newseum, so there's so many — whether it's CNN correspondents or whatnot, we have a lot of news people here as well.
Do you watch a lot of deals go down?
I know nothing. I have earmuffs on when I'm at the table. I don't know what you're talking about.
So what's the most outrageous request that you have not been able to accommodate?
Well, again, you have to have a flexibility and a sense of humor on a crazy night because there's a lot of stuff you can't control. For me it's like a strategic chess game where some of the politicians that you know you have one party you can't seat directly next to... You have to know some of the internal conversation going on. It's like the President, when he came, I didn't get any notice. What that entails, those are crazy requests to accommodate. But with that, again, my job is to do everything we can to accommodate within a means to accommodate the guests' requests. And that's also the fun part because some people have crazy proposals and it's fun that they're making us a part of that.
What are some of the crazy proposals that you have accommodated?
I used to work in Maui and so there are a lot of weddings and so there you get very, very comfortable. Here, I don't work with a lot of the proposals. I work with some of them, but Chad Hubbard, the assistant general manager, his success rate right now is 100 percent. He works with those fiances — or yet-to-be, the ready boyfriends — and it's fun. Whether it's a surprise, whether it's well-planned, it's fun sort of things.
What sorts of things do they ask you to do?
Everything from whether it's incorporating it to a dish, whether it's presenting it in a wine bottle or in some sort of with the champagne. There's a lot of creative people out there.
And tell me what it was like when President Obama came here.
It was a very special time because it was Michelle's birthday. And it brings such an energy. It was really, really cool. I was told that they wanted a very normal experience and so that's what they got. They sat right next to other diners.
And you didn't get much notice ahead of time?
I got very little notice. What was funny is that obviously you can't tell anybody either, so it was a complete surprise to all the staff. Chef Scott and I knew and nobody else in the restaurant knew.
Was there a lot of gawking?
Not as much as you would expect, and I think that's kind of the credit of the President and First Lady is that they dine out so much that diners are really comfortable with it. It's one of those, oh, there they are. And the dinner goes on. But it's something that you go home and you call your mom about.
And so where are you eating when you're not here?
My super-secret place is Rasika. When I get done with dinner service here, sometimes I go up there and I think their food is always just outstanding. So you usually find me there. 2 Amys is spectacular pizza. I love Palena, a great classic. Their hamburger and their chicken is phenomenal. What's fun is that so many places are opening up around here. Fiola is great, Graffiato is wonderful, Estadio. We have so many José Andrés restaurants you can sneak into. We're so lucky here in Washington.
What's the one gatekeeper tool you need the most to do your job?
You have to be able to think creatively because, again, you have x amount of tables. You have guests who need to be upstairs. You've got to make things work. While you're trying to figure all that out, you have to have a smile on your face. I realize that I'm the luckiest girl. This job is so phenomenal. And there aren't a lot of female operators like I am. Even with Wolfgang Puck, I'm the only female outside of LA. And in Washington there's not a lot of females. So I'm so lucky to have that. You work extra hard and you take care of your guests because the guests are the heart of the restaurant. It's an honor to do that.
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