Once in awhile, Le Diplomate actually looks pretty empty.
General Manager William Washington sat down with Eater around 5 p.m. on a Thursday in a deep booth at the front of the popular 14th street restaurant during what felt like the calm before a storm. Staff had finished discussing daily menu logistics and readied their positions for dinner invasion.
After working at The Inn at Little Washington and similarly difficult-to-access restaurants in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, William Washington said to himself, "never again." That is, until Philadelphia's Starr Restaurants called him with an offer he just couldn't refuse: running an authentic brasserie in the city he loves.
Still overwhelmed by Le Diplomate's popularity after about a year and a half, William Washington divulges some insider tips to snagging a table, and not just for politicos like First Ladies or Vice Presidents. Brasseries, after all, welcome everyone.
It doesn't look that busy right now, at 5:00 on a Thursday.
That's right. The first secret to getting into the hard restaurants is coming at an off-time. At five o'clock you can walk into Le Diplomate almost any day of the week. The weekends might be tougher. I tell people it really offers you a lot more opportunities. If it is date night, you can come early and then still go catch a show, or catch the show and come join us after. The urban myth or mindset is that you can never get a table here. You just might not be able to get the exact time you want for your large party. We are very fortunate that we are so busy, but there is a finite amount of furniture.
What percentage of tables are kept for spontaneous walk-ins on any given night?
Generally speaking, we seat about 270 people, and almost one third of our seats are kept for walk-ins. We purposefully don't reserve every table in the restaurant. We do not reserve tables outside, because try as hard as I might, I can't control the weather. That's certainly an ever-changing factor. So a reservation guarantees a table in the dining room, but if there is a place available on the patio when you get here, you are more than welcome to switch. We keep the patio open as long as people want to sit there. You see out there, there is an enclosure, those walls retract and we can actually heat that section. So we only lose about 50 or 60 seats in the winter.
Say it's 8 p.m. on a Friday night. What's the wait time for walk-ins?
Timing is everything. If you walk in at the right moment and we had cancellations, which happen all the time, you might be seated in 20 minutes. You might. Or it could be up to 2 hours, which is very unusual. We see that a few times a year when there is perfect weather and it's like a perfect storm in here.
So, what practical recommendations do you have for people who want to come at peak dinner or weekend brunch times?
Brunch is very busy, Washingtonians just love brunch. But we tell people the truth and let them know what is the situation. We have pretty good estimates of how time will go but it's not an exact science, which is frustrating for the general dining public. But we certainly don't tell you when you walk in that you have one hour and twenty seven minutes to eat, we'll be timing! We want people to stay and enjoy it. So we usually put about a ten minute padding in there, to under promise and over deliver as much as possible. But there is always going to be that day of the perfect storm, when things take longer, and that's when the champagne comes out.
Is there anything that one can say to make their wait shorter? Has anyone ever tried to slip you money or gifts to get in faster?
Every day (laughs). People offer money all the time, that goes without saying, but we don't work that way. Guests are more than welcome to tip the hosts at the desk but in reality, it will have very little effect on your wait time. We are really running down a list. It is often confusing to people, like when a party of four sees a party of two come in after them and gets seated ahead of them. They often assume that table of two just gave us money. But it doesn't work that way, we don't sell tables.
How do you deal with politicians and other VIP's, if you don't have a table available?
In D.C. more than any other city, you get the "Do you know who I am?s" We have a lot of people come in saying, "I'm a very important person." And then we put them on the list like everybody else. The exceptions that we make are people with high security concerns, that cannot make a reservation just like anybody else. If we don't have a table, then don't have a table available for them. But we usually will have a table available.
No special exceptions?
There are some extreme examples, like the Vice President, where he can't stand in line or at the bar because their secret service would have a conniption fit. So we do make some effort to move things around, and sometimes have to bump someone from the list. Now, when that happens, those people are getting free dinner on us. And so we walk up to them and say, "Listen, the Vice President just came in and we don't want him to have to wait. Can I buy you dinner tonight, and ask you to wait another thirty minutes?" That usually works out pretty well. And if it doesn't there is usually quite a few people waiting for tables so we can go down the list. To date, we never had a situation where that was an issue. Some of our best guests now are people like that, who got bumped for a celebrity like that.
It's not limited to the Vice President or politicians. We see plenty of recognizable people, like musicians or actors, and it's not fair to them. They worked really hard to get where they are, and in a public forum, people will sit in the dining room tweeting about them or taking snapshots with their phones. That's the risk they take coming here, so we don't want to aggravate the situation by asking them to sit at the bar. At the end of the day, our goal is to try to bring as many people to Le Diplomate as possible.
Le Diplomate is not meant to be an exclusive type of restaurant. Steven's vision, and really the vision of any brasserie, is not to have this mystique of exclusivity, or to have it limited to A-List or anything like that. It may sound silly to call it a neighborhood restaurant, but we try to treat it that way, we want everyone to come in.
Is there any level of added pressure when critics are in the dining room?
Absolutely there is a lot of pressure, but usually not directed the way people believe. We tried to train our staff on this and I think it is one of the keys to our success: As soon as a highly recognizable person walks in, the attention immediately needs to go everywhere else in the restaurant. Because the public perception is, anything that goes wrong it will be relayed to that person. Imagine if Ronald Reagan comes out of the grave as a zombie and walks into the dining room. If someone else gets an overcooked hamburger, it will get back to him. Someone else will say, if I were a zombie back from the dead, my hamburger would be cooked perfectly. So we've become hyper aware of the other guests when we have a VIP in here, so that's the tension the staff feels. If Michelle Obama is in here, there is only one person waiting on her. On any given night, there are about 25 servers running the floor and 60-70 people full staff.
What do you wish you could change about the Le Diplomate dining experience?
I could use some storage space, for everything. Le Diplomate was built for a certain amount of business, and the success really surprised everyone, DC and us at Starr. If you look out back, that is my third custom shed built for the alley, only 72 hours old and it has already been hit by a truck. Also, we had to move the bakery eight blocks away and of course we wish there was more parking in the neighborhood. We do have valets, but a lot of the neighbors are concerned, and again we want to be good neighbors. If there were more parking, that would be helpful.
So where are you eating when you're not here?
How can you tell I like to eat; are you calling me fat? I do eat here every day, it is part of our quality control. I think I've eaten that hangar steak literally hundreds of times. It is our most popular dish by a landslide.
Is it worth it?
I'll put it to you this way, I don't eat hangar steak anywhere else anymore.