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John McDonald Never Says No to Regulars
The longtime New York restaurateur and Broken Palate founder on the secrets of VIP status and the many channels of creative satisfaction
Many thanks to Chris Mohney of F&BQ&A on Substack — a site that features interviews with interesting people in the food and beverage industry as well as those in media, cooking, brewing, distilling, and spaces in-between.
This post is an audio and excerpt on Tasting Table/Broken Palate founder John McDonald — who has been on a tear opening restaurants under the Mercer Street Hospitality banner this year, including, most recently, Smyth Tavern in Tribeca; Bar Tulix in Soho, and Hancock St. in the West Village. Read on for more from John. — the Editors
Chris: Considering your dual career in both New York restaurants and media, how do you feel about the state of those industries?
John: The media thing has changed. You look at all the media outlets we’ve all grown up with, and it’s clear that normal media is destroyed. I think magazines are almost obsolete now. I just did a two hour in-person interview with Graydon Carter for Broken Palate. We talked about that a little bit—how everything’s a blog. There’s not a lot of real reporting.
On the restaurant side, it’s kind of convoluted. When you look back to how people used to read restaurant reviews, you really took them seriously. You wanted to read Frank Bruni’s review, or Adam Platt’s. You had real criticism.
But criticism has changed. Everyone’s a critic. Your restaurant—your product that you put your heart and soul into—is constantly under attack. I’m not crying about that. You have to do your job. People are paying money, and you have to try to do your best. But there’s definitely an overreach where everybody is just so aggressive.
Similar to the Graydon Carter piece, I did a long sit-down with Daniel Boulud that we haven’t published yet, and we talked about the idea of the critics and the customers, and how wouldn’t it be fun if we could rate our customers like Uber drivers rate theirs. If we could say, “This is a difficult customer. They’ve canceled 50 percent of the time that they make a reservation.”
It's the fantasy of having a customer who’s just so difficult, and they’re mistreating your staff on a high, high level. “Okay, you can do that. But I’m going to let everyone know that you’ve abused people and done X, Y, Z. And that way, when you go to all my friends’ restaurants, they’re going to know you’re that guy or that girl.” But of course you can’t do that. I’d be in big trouble.
That brings up something I hear a lot from people working in the business —they’d like customers to think of hospitality as more of a shared experience between guest and service, rather than a one-way relationship that can feel oppressive or even abusive.
I love that idea. It’s just so hard to get consumers in that mindset. They’re the customer, I get it. It’s like if I'm going to a concert, I want to be entertained. I want to be taken care of if I’m paying, and the more money I’m paying, the more demanding I’m going to be. It’s just gotten a little out of control and a little unrealistic. Everybody thinks they’re a VIP. The number of human beings who believe themselves to be VIPs has to be 100x what they were ten years ago. No exaggeration.
“The number of human beings who believe themselves to be VIPs has to be 100x what they were ten years ago.”
I can remember a real conversation in the early mid ‘90s, when I was in my 20s, when my friends were asking how to become a VIP at Nobu. I told them it’s very easy. I’m going to book you a table. You go, and when you leave, you book a second reservation for the following week. You stop, you talk to the maître d’—”Hey, my name is whatever, I’d love to come back next Wednesday. Hey, what's your name?” Get his name. You go back the following Wednesday. You make another reservation for two weeks out. You've now gone three times. You know the guy’s name. You’re now a VIP because you’re actually a customer. That’s the difference between being a real VIP and saying, “Oh, I'm a VIP because I go to Lure Fishbar once a year.”
What do you think causes the rise in customers insisting on VIP treatment?
It’s social media. “I have a lot of friends. I got followers. Look at me: I’m so cool.” It's a certain level of entitlement without behavior that backs it up. If you eat in my venues on a regular basis, I never say no under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if someone else unfortunately might get dinged. I hate that happening, but I just don’t believe in saying no to guests who truly frequent restaurants, because there aren’t that many of them. It’s so much harder to replace someone that eats with you 30 times a year.
So when you don’t say no, you mean to unusual requests?
Like, “Hey, I need a table Friday night for four people,” and they give me 30 minutes notice. I’m like, “I got it.” I’ll make it work. If they’re in the restaurant and say, “Can I get scrambled eggs?” It's like, “Chef, make some scrambled eggs.” The late great Ray Liotta would come to Lure with his daughter and his girlfriend at the time. He would book at noon, and we'd make him the pancakes he wanted at dinner. Every time.
On other other side of the equation, how do you de-escalate when someone is maybe pushing the boundaries of entitlement?
One time there was a younger guy that started frequenting Lure, and he got a little bit out of control. My GM told me, “Such-and-such is coming in. He’s walked up to the podium, and he’s very demanding and started throwing your name around.” I called the guy up, saying, “Look, man, I love and appreciate you coming in, but you’ve got to be respectful of the fact that everybody has their things going on. And you're just not going to win the battle here if you don’t behave in a way where everybody actually likes you.” If you really want to be a great guest, the best thing is to behave in a way where everyone feels happy to see you, like, “Hey, Chris is here! Chris just walked in!” Otherwise they’ll be like, “Ugh, guys ... it’s that customer. Oh, man, Chris just came in.”
That would be more enjoyable for everyone, guest and server alike. It would seem natural to cultivate the kinds of guests who actually like engaging with servers and others, rather than just being waited on by obedient drones.
That’s the best part of working in a restaurant. Lure is almost 20 years old. I’ve got servers and runners that have been there ten years, maybe more. I’ve got customers that specifically want to be seated in those peoples’ sections because they enjoy the company of those servers. That’s the energy they share with each other.
You’re still creating and opening new spots. When you come up with these concepts, are you imagining already how they also might become longstanding institutions? Or does each one come from a different place?
The reason I closed and renovated El Toro Blanco, and then changed Burger & Barrel to Bar Tulix, was just sheer boredom during lockdown. I was here. I didn’t leave. I just wanted a creative outlet and a project.
What we had originally planned with El Toro Blanco was closing for a week and doing a light renovation. But then lockdown hit, and we didn’t know how long it was going to last. Serge Becker helped design and curate Hancock Street—he was here too. So we said, hey, let’s do something. We wanted to make that restaurant feel like it had been there already, to give it the physicality that comes with restaurants that feel like institutions. Serge is so good at the nuance of all these thousand little decisions.
Everything in restaurants today is like, the same sconces from the same vendor, the same catalog. Just like Instagram created fast, fast fashion where everything gets knocked off, in a restaurant you can have good design, incredible light, and the next thing you know, it’s in some knockoff catalog. I can remember starting ten-plus years ago buying these restaurant chairs from Amsterdam, and now everybody has that chair. Everyone, everyone has it.
“We almost have to make some decisions that are unusual, even borderline unattractive.”
We almost have to make some decisions that are unusual, even borderline unattractive. I found a chair for Hancock Street from this designer, Gilbert Marklund, that I’d never seen. It’s a little bit ugly. If you really stare at it, you’re like, “I don't know if I’d want that in my house.”