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Volt's Steve Fowler on Table 21 and Swooning Diners

Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a 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.
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[R. Lopez, 2/8]

Sure, it's located about 50 miles away in Frederick, but Volt is all the same a special occasion restaurant for Washingtonians. And, as such, it's not easy getting a table on a Friday or Saturday night — especially if you're booking Table 21. And reservations have only gotten harder in the past couple of years since chef Bryan Voltaggio became kind of a big deal through his appearance on season six of Top Chef. So when should you start looking into booking? General manager Steve Fowler shares some intel about scoring a table, all the diners who swoon over Voltaggio and his celebrity and the "impressive" Frederick dining scene.

How many seats do you guys have?
Around 70, not including the lounge and bar area.

And which ones are your favorites?
Table 21 is definitely far and away the best, but also the most challenging to get in.

Any favorites aside from that?
For me, to be able to see the kitchen and see how they all work in unison and how the team works together, I think the Chef's Kitchen is really interesting. You are set up with a view of the kitchen so you get a lot more action and interaction during the dining experience without being intrusive or invasive. It's a pretty cool place to eat.

Say it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table?
We highly encourage someone to come with a reservation if they want to sit down. 8 o'clock on Saturday your best bet is the lounge area or the bar area. Occasionally we have room for walk-ins and if there is room we will absolutely accommodate. But we do encourage reservations because we do book out pretty early.

What if I did not make a reservation? What's the best strategy to take?
You can do a couple things. We could put you on a waitlist and hope for the best for a table in the dining room. There are times when things do come available. It would be a little bit tricky, but we could make something work. Otherwise, eating in the bar or the lounge, you can do all menus that are offered in the dining rooms. So you can still do the seven-course tasting menu and sit in the bar and have a little bit different atmosphere.

How far in advance do you book?
For [Table] 21, it's one month to the day in advance and the reservation line opens at 9 a.m. So I would think by 9:15 we're pretty much booked for Table 21. It's pretty quick. Occasionally if we have some cancellations or something you'll find Bryan tweeting that we have an opening. So if you follow Bryan, you may get an inside track to it.

Is there anything I can say or do to make my wait shorter?
Not necessarily. We're pretty democratic with this. It's first-come first-served, just to be as fair as possible.

Has anybody ever tried to slip you money or give you gifts?
Nobody has tried with me yet, but people do get aggressive with making reservations.

How does Bryan's celebrity play into that?
I think in good amount. Top Chef did a lot for Volt, or at least awareness of Volt. The food and cuisine didn't necessarily change all that much, but it let people know that we were out there doing this good stuff. It's probably been an overwhelming positive.

Do you have any favorite customers or regulars?
We have a couple that has come something like 300 times. They're there three or four times a week. It's unbelievable and it's pretty cool. Everyone on staff knows them by first name and they come in and four or five people come and greet them right away. When they're at the table they're almost like part of the family.

How about other VIP guests? Do you get a lot of celebrities?
We have had some, but we try to be as fair as possible. If a celebrity comes in, we try to keep that to ourselves and respect their privacy.

How do you deal with VIPs when there aren't any tables left?
Very rarely will we not know ahead of time that somebody is coming in and, honestly, I haven't crossed that situation yet. I've luckily not had to deal with it, which is probably a good thing.

What's the most outrageous request that you have been able to accommodate?
I don't know. It's interesting because coming to a restaurant like Volt most people's requests are relatively tame. Nobody has done anything insane with us. It's almost like they are aware of what kind of situation they're coming into and they don't ask us anything crazy.

How about fameball-type things for Bryan?
Lots of menu-signing for Bryan, lots of pictures and stuff like that, which is obviously totally fine.

Do you have any funny stories of that?
You will get people getting very excited to see Chef and the reaction can be pretty entertaining when they get to see him. And even after he leaves the immediate area how they're still very excited and kind of giggling about it.

Ladies swooning?
To a degree but, you'd be surprised, men do as well.

And where are you eating when you're not there?
Well, I live here in Penn Quarter right now. I like Rasika a lot. America Eats Tavern is another one I like. Their Reuben is out of this world and the cocktails are pretty right on. Owen Thompson is pretty awesome. Besides that, Toki Underground on H Street I like a lot for ramen.

What's the dining scene like in Frederick?
It's good! It surprisingly has a ton of restaurants for the area. It's kind of cool and reminiscent of Old Town, just not in Alexandria. Cobblestone streets, the old brick townhomes. It seems like it's two or three restaurants on a block. It's a pretty interesting dining scene. And for Frederick to support a restaurant like Volt and all the others is pretty impressive for a smaller community and their appetite for dining out.

Yeah, what's your patronage percentage-wise? Is it mostly locals?
It's a nice mix. We definitely have a lot of people making the drive from DC or Virginia, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. But you also have a really strong percentage of the people who just come on a Wednesday because they want to have good food and a good dining experience. And for the Maryland suburbs, the distance isn't all that much different than driving into the city. So for that unique dining experience you don't always have to come into the District. You can drive the same distance to Frederick and check out a pretty cool restaurant.

So what is the most important gatekeeper tool that you need to do your job?
Patience and understanding that for anyone coming in this is a special experience and understanding the significance to the people coming into the restaurant. It's a special occasion for almost everyone that comes. You can facilitate their needs if you grasp that internally as a team.

You said before that Top Chef had made everyone more aware of Volt. Can you explain that a little more?
I wasn't working there at the time, but from what I hear, I don't know if it was like flipping a light switch, but business changed. For the better. It allows us to have more fun and be more creative and do some great things for everyone who comes in.

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Volt

228 N Market St, Frederick, MD 21701 08-662 34 00 Visit Website

Volt

228 North Market St, Frederick, MD

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