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Tyes Zolman on Pearl Dive Oyster Palace's Secret Reservations and Snagging the Chef's Table

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.
[R. Lopez]

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace has been one of Washington's hottest tables since it opened in September as the latest member of restaurateur Jeff Black's empire. Eschewing reservations for a deli ticket system, there can be some pretty epic waits at Pearl Dive. How to get around that, aside from passing the time with a few drinks at the restaurant's upper-level bar Black Jack? Oh, maybe just with secret reservations and a wide-open a la carte chef's table. General manager Tyes Zolman — who has been with the Black Restaurant Group for four years — fills Eater in on how to get a table at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

Say it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's my wait for a table?
We definitely try to give people uplifting responses, but on the realistic side of it, on Saturday at 8 we're probably looking at an hour and a half or an hour and 45 minutes. We do know that a lot of what we're getting right now is still a season change traffic. But the weekends have been true to what's going on with the neighborhood, what's going on with the restaurant. We're talking about two hours for the peak time.

Has it been pretty consistently that way?
Well, it's actually gone down. We used to have almost three hours waits at that time.

Is there anything I can say or do to make my wait shorter?
Well, there's lots to do. We like to provide the best waiting room in the city. We say coming up here [to Black Jack] is what you can do while you're waiting. We usually just recommend that people send somebody in their party to pop in and get your name on our list. We do an automated waitlist now through an iPad so we'll take a phone number and give you one of our deli ticket numbers. So we recommend you just get a ticket and then meet up with your friends, have drinks at Black Jack, hang out at the patio and fill your time that way. As far as skipping ahead in the line, because of the size of the dining room we try to stay true to the quotes and stay as fair as possible to everyone coming in.

That being said, we also take a secret four reservations each night between 5 o'clock and 6:30. It's definitely helpful for those that are planning occasions. It can be truthfully any size party, keeping in mind that we just have that round table in the dining room that accommodates eight or nine and then everything else is parties of six.

Speaking of your ticket system, can you tell me a little how it's been working out?
We didn't want to do pagers or anything really informal. We wanted to make sure we're still taking people's names and getting descriptions. So you take the deli ticket and we have two different colors. We have a red side for parties of two or less and a green side for parties of three or more. And that allows us to not have to skip numbers if we have just two-tops that open up. It works out really great because I think it alleviates the anxiety people have when they're waiting. We have the numbers displayed in two different places up [in Black Jack]. It allows them to come up here to relax and see the numbers go forward.

Is it easier to get food from the menu up here?
It's certainly easier to get food from the menu up here, space determining. The food comes up from a smaller kitchen in Black Jack. Obviously, it comes when it's ready, so the dining times are a lot shorter. So yes, you are usually able to grab a high-top table, a space at the bar, a coffee table in the lounge. The good news is you can have oysters on both floors. Once we announce that everyone's like, "Oh, for sure, I'll wait forever."

Has anyone ever tried to slip you money or gifts?
We do get a few of that. We don't accept any of the monies. Our motto is really to make sure that everybody is treated as fair as possible and also treated very well and welcoming and warm. We always go out with a positive aspect and offer them things. We have four seats at our oyster bar that face the shuckers and face the big oyster display and those are always first-come first-served. So we try to let people know, "We'll help you keep an eye out on who's paying their check on those bars or in the main bar."

And then we also let people know that we understand that there's occasions that you didn't call for those first four reservation slots and you're desperate for a table. We have brought people into the kitchen for our chef's table, which is something that we do unique. Not a safety net because we like to reserve it if people would like to call to make a reservation for the chef's table. Right now we just have it open. It's a la carte. We can do two reservations in the chef's table a night.

Are you all booked up so far?
No. That's certainly something I'm happy to let the masses know. The chef's table is a lot of fun for the guests sitting in there. It's a lot of fun for us in the kitchen. It keeps everybody remembering what it is that they're doing. They're literally making food and serving it and watching people eat it and I think that's what chefs really find is their passion and drive through their career. We try to make it as fun as possible. We talk them through how we work the kitchen, how our tickets work, what it means to call for a runner in kitchen lingo and things like that. But we do try to keep it really casual. You're in the kitchen and people are walking by you with clean dishes, dirty dishes, glasses. So we just tell people, if you just relax and have a good time, the experience you're going to get is going to be something unique.

I should make a reservation now.
It's a lot of fun. The catch is we do ask that three or four people are fitting in there ... Most recently, a party of two really wanted the chef's table, another party of two was really discouraged by the wait. And we said, hey, if you guys don't mind eating together we'll take you both back there. So we had two couples sitting at the table, didn't know each other when they walked in, sat down, ended up talking throughout the meal, having a good time. It's as close as we can get to a family-style dining room, allowing strangers and couples to sit next to each other.

Good to know. So tell me about some of your regular customers. Do you get VIPs here?
We have a lot of people who live in the neighborhood. I think that's been a push of Jeff Black's in all of our restaurants. If you notice where they're located in Garrett Park or in Bethesda or in the Palisades, we're always around other homes and neighborhoods. People who live really close to us come in often and they have their special tables. Table 35 belongs to Patrick and we do everything we can to make that available for him. He'll call and let us know and we'll say, "OK, well they're finishing their meal now so head on over so that when they pay their check it can be yours."

VIPS, we have our VIPS in the food world. We have different chefs that come through. We have senators that come through.

Any names?
We had Mark Warner come through a few times. He sat in the chef's table and then sat in the dining room. Kind of got to see both sides of it, so that was really fun. I think everybody's favorite was Jin on Lost, the actor [Daniel Dae Kim]. He came upstairs, went downstairs and got pictures with everybody and had a great time. So faces like that I'm hoping we're seeing more and more of. But no huge names yet. No presidents to name of yet. Hopefully soon.

And where do you eat when you're not here?
I eat very locally. I'm a huge fan of Little Serow and I go there as often as I can. That's my style of dining. On very many levels, but that's one of my favorite styles of dining is to be able to go in and allow the chef to just send out what's going on that day. I adore not ordering. Palena is also another favorite of mine. And I frequent Peregrine all the time. I think they have amazing coffee. Estadio is usually an afternoon spot. Wine and little samples and olives. You can't get much better than that.

And what's the one gatekeeper tool that you need to do your job?
It's two, really. The first thing is just being aware of what's going on. I think that makes it a lot easier for me to confront or come solve problems when I know what's going on. I try to keep an eye on how many tables are paying checks, how many are eating entrees, how many are just getting started or having oysters. And I keep that information in the back of my mind. And I always address the host stand and address the people coming in the front door with all of that information so I'm able to give as honest a quote as possible.

Second of all, I think patience is really it. Honestly, just being able to let people tell you what they need and then just staying patient with that and figuring out what you can offer. Something I take pride in and try to push onto the people that I hire is always be able to offer something. If I can't get you a table right now, I can get you a barstool. If I can't get you a drink because we're five deep, I can get you a menu and I can help you through your decision. There's always something I can do. I guess the underlying theme of the restaurant group has always been hospitality at its finest on different levels. We have fine dining hospitality. We have casual hospitality. On any level you should feel like you're coming into somebody's home.

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Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

1612 14th Street Northwest, , DC 20009 (202) 319-1612 Visit Website

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