Since opening in spring 2013, The Red Hen has garnered praise for its rustic menu and focus on being an approachable neighborhood restaurant.
But that fame has also created long wait times for tables — sometimes up to three hours during prime hours. Jockeying for space here can get competitive and even sparked a debate recently about bar seating etiquette.
In this month's edition of The Gatekeepers, service manager Jared Barker talks with Eater about what it's like to helm a neighborhood restaurant that's found its tables among the most coveted in the city.
It's dinner rush on a Saturday night. What's the wait time for walk-ins?
It depends on when you walk in the door. You know, we're a small restaurant. We've only got 62 seats and that includes two six-tops. So a lot of people come here, and I want to feed all of them. But sometimes, depending on the time, it just won't happen.
How many tables are reserved in advance?
We only book about half of our dining room and save half for walk-ins. [These seats] are normally eaten up pretty early in the evening. People show up early and grab a table or show up early right when the waitlist just starts and put their name on the waitlist and we text people when we have their table ready.
Also, our bar is 18 seats, full dinner service and really more of a dining bar not a drinking bar, so it's a good bet for two-tops to go there. It's a little harder when you have four people.
Do you get longs lines of people waiting to get the first open seats?
There's never really a line down the block. [Friday] we opened our doors and there were already 20-something people waiting outside and that's normally about the extent of it.
What advice do you have for people who might be turned away by long waits?
I always tell people that if you come in and the wait list is long, don't be afraid. We will quote you an accurate three-hour wait at Friday at 7 o'clock, but that's just because our wait list is that long. And all of those people in the middle normally just...fall off so that people that we quote three hours to end up only waiting for an hour and a half sometimes and then getting a table. And again, I always try to get people seats at the bar or try to finagle things. I try to ask people to move, try to fit people in.
Is it common to have people cancel or drop off the waitlist?
I'd say we lose — on the Fridays and Saturdays in particular — we probably lose 30 percent or 40 percent of the names on the waitlist.
How far in advance would you recommend trying to get a reservation?
We only take about 50 percent reservations, so the reservations book up pretty quickly. If you want that 7 o'clock on a Friday, we take reservations a month to the day in advance, and those normally go two to three weeks out.
Have you considered changing the reservation policy?
I think it's a constant discussion. It comes up every couple of months. I think we like it as-is now. I don't know if that's going to change at any point. But I think we'll always take at least 50 percent reservations. We'll never go to reservations only, I don't think.
It's hard to operate within the confines of a neighborhood restaurant and say, "OK, we're reservations only," or, "OK, we're walk-ins only."
Have you been consistently busy since day one?
We, I think, have had since we've opened two slow days. What we would consider slow. Otherwise we're blessed with a good bit of business, most of it local. We bill ourselves as a neighborhood joint and most people that come in here on a nightly basis live right around here, which I like to see.
Is it difficult to be a neighborhood restaurant when it's so competitive to eat here?
Yes and no. But I think the people that are in the neighborhood know how to run the system. They know the game, so they'll come in and they'll put their names on the waitlist because we text people when they're table is ready.
So they'll come in and put their name on the waitlist and be like "see you in two hours," and then come back. So it's a lot easier to service the neighborhood once they've kind of figured out how to work it.
Have people ever offered bribes to try and get seated?
No one's ever offered me any bribes. It wouldn't get them very far, though. I want to feed everyone that comes in here and nobody's more important than the person behind them.
Given how busy you are, has there been any discussion about serving brunch or lunch?
There has. We've discussed it since before we even opened and we've thrown it back and forth. It just comes down to space. [The total area] of this restaurants is somewhere in the vicinity of 2,500 square feet.
We've got a tiny little walk-in, and we can barely keep enough food to get ourselves through a normal weekend now. If we were to add brunch to that, it would be insanity. I'm sure we could get the staff and do that kind of thing, but even just the space to store the food is out of our reach.
Do you ever think you'll expand the hours?
I won't rule anything out. We always have conversations about that kind of thing.
Have there been any notable folks that have come in here?
Yes. We'll leave it there.
I think that people have their own sanctums and the dinner table is one of those private places that if people want to go have a nice dinner out then, no matter who they are, they should be able to do it without getting it blasted on Twitter.
What's it like dealing with high-profile guests?
It's fun. I mean, we get our share of VIPs and I think that...in my heart of hearts I want to make sure everyone has the same experience no matter who who they are. If President Obama walks in the door I want him to get the same bowl of rigatoni that the guy that lives across the street gets. There's no difference for me, personally.
What are you most proud of from a service perspective?
I am probably most proud of our ability to treat everybody as a neighbor and give everyone the same thing that they've had. For instance, our rigatoni. It's been on our menu since we opened and if you have it today it's the exact same one we were serving on day one. So consistency is a thing that I'm very, very proud of here. And the general warmth of the atmosphere.
Do you you wish the restaurant was bigger?
No, not at all, I like it like this. I like it like this a whole lot. I can stand on the kitchen line on any given night and in the middle of running food I can turn around — thankfully due to height — I can turn around and look and see the entire dining [room] and see everything that's going on in just one little look and it's always nice.
Would you change anything about how things run here?
Good question. I don't often think about that. I don't think I would change anything about the way we run here. We have a small staff, but they're solid. On a Friday night we've only got five servers. We've got an amazing kitchen crew, we've got amazing support staff in every way and I have no complaints there.