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Joe Ostrosky on Managing the Epic Lines at Toki

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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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[Photo: R. Lopez]

Stories of the epic lines at Toki Underground are at this point legendary. There are ways to avoid them — the restaurant accepts early reservations, and managers are willing to call customers' cell phones when a table is ready. Balancing these various systems is part of the job of general manager Joe Ostrosky. For this month's Gatekeepers, Ostrosky, who used to play in a band with chef Erik Bruner-Yang before coming to work at Toki, talks about celebrity ramen eaters, how long the waits really get, and how nuts it was on Inauguration Day.

Ok, I show up on Saturday night around 7, 8 p.m. What kind of wait am I in for?
Typically the wait is 3 to 4 hours. On Saturdays we open at 5, and usually a line starts forming at around 4:30 or 4:45. And then from 5 to 5:45 I start taking names.

How big is the line?
Typically about 25 people get in line before 5 on Saturday.

Is the scenario pretty similar on Fridays?
On Fridays, we do close to the same volume. I think on Saturdays since people are off work, they're more willing to get here early. On Fridays, it's usually 6 or 6:15 before it gets super busy.

If people don't want to wait long, when do you recommend they arrive?
Early, between 5-6 p.m., on weekdays. And you can also book on CityEats for early reservations.

What are the rules surrounding the CityEats reservations?
We accept reservations up to two weeks in advance, which we recommend for Fridays and Saturdays. Usually during the week you can still grab an early reservation. It's
for 5, 5:15 or 5:30 for a party of 2, or 6 p.m. for 2 to 4 people. But we recommend calling if you can't make a reservation.

Toki has the system where you'll call a person's cell phone when the table is ready. Has that been well-received?
I think that's a lot of the reason people decide to put themselves on the list when there's a 4 hour wait. They can go to the bar downstairs, sit down, grab an appetizer and wait.

How long do you hold the table once it's available?
We'll hold your table for 10 minutes. But if you're having a hard time closing your bar tab, or something like that, and let us know, we work with you. Sometimes people call back and say, "We're having a good time, can you bump us to later?", and that's fine, too.

So given the set-up, do you end up with a lot of people who end up showing up hours later pretty wasted?
[Laughs] Yes, usually at around 9 or 10 p.m. on a Saturday, you'll see a lot of that.

Do you find a lot of people who deal with the long wait are those who live in the neighborhood?
Yeah, we definitely have people wil wil pop in, put their name down, go back home and wait for the table.

Toki's been open for close to two years. Has it always been slammed?
We've always been pretty busy. We're now getting to the point where, in order to increase our sales, we have to train the staff to be more efficient, and increase the turn times — without customers feeling like they're being rushed out.

You guys only have room for about 20 people. Do you end up with a lot of big crowds who want to be seated all at once?
Yeah. One Saturday, someone ended up coming by with 22 people. Luckily they got here early enough that within an hour, we could get them in. We had to split them up into about 10 different parties.

Do people offer you bribes for a seat?
Lately it happens on almost a daiy basis.

Does it work?
It does not. I mean, if you tell me you have theater tickets, and you need a certain time or something like that, I'll do my best to work with you. But money isn't necessary.

What was the biggest bribe you've gotten?
[Awhile back] a five-top offered me $100. There's also a lot of, "I know the chef" comments, but so many people know the chef, so that doesn't really work.

Do you get a lot of unusual requests from diners?
We send out cookies if it's someone's birthday. But people don't really ask for a lot of special things. We've had customers come in with food allergies. We always do our best. It's best to call ahead. But if you have a gluten allergy, there's soy sauce in all of our ramens. We've had some people bring in rice noodles, and we'll glady cook them for them.

You've had some big names come in, like José Andrés with Ferran Adria. How did that go down?
When we got the call it was about 3:30. They said the'yd be here around 5, 5:30 and wanted a tasting menu. At first we were like "Oh, it's so crazy this is happening." Then it really sunk in that we had to get ready for this. About two weeks ago, Alice Waters came in. She was super, super nice. And of course a couple months ago, Neil Patrick Harris came in. He was super gracious and very friendly.

Do any particular restaurants get the most overflow business when people are waiting? Obviously the Pug.
The Pug gets a lot of business. Since we share a liquor license, that means you can bring your drink up to Toki from there, so that's an incentive. Atlas Room is another.

How has using CityEats worked out for you?
It's an amazing tool for us. With the size of the restaurant, it's very hard to manage everything with just pen and paper. It's definitely been a step up for us.

What are the most popular dishes at Toki?
The classic ramen is the most popular. Kimchee is close behind. People really like the curry chicken, the pork belly when we have it.

Where do you eat when you're not at the restaurant?
Right now, my favorite celebratory restaurant is BLT Steak. It's just completely on another level. The service is incredible. I love going to Boundary Road; they have great food there.

What was the craziest night for you, working at Toki?
Inauguration was pretty crazy. People just kept coming in and putting their name down. Typically, on a Saturday night we'll have 80 names on the list. That night, there were 140. People willing to wait up to five, six hours.

· All Previous Editions of The Gatekeepers [-EDC-]
· All Previous Toki Underground Coverage [-EDC-]

Toki Underground

1234 H Street Northeast, , DC 20002 (202) 388-3086 Visit Website

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