Restaurant Regulars (for Baltimore Style magazine)

The Regulars

It’s a symbiotic relationship: restaurants depend on their regulars for ongoing business, and regulars benefit from the extra attention. It’s a win-win for everyone. And it makes for some interesting tales.
by Sarah Gilbert Fox

Define a “regular.”  Some restaurateurs say it’s a customer who keeps coming back. Others say it’s the person who, simply by walking in the door, prompts the waitstaff or bartender to set up a favorite table or pour the usual drink without it needing to be ordered. Still others say that the regulars are the ones who return
because they’ve incorporated the restaurant into their lives.

Whatever the answer, regulars are the bread and butter of the restaurant business. Ask any restaurant owner and they’ll tell you they’d rather have a regular who spends a little bit of money three times a week than someone they aren’t sure will come back who spends a lot.

And there’s more to being a regular than money. In the end, a restaurant, along with its staff, becomes the family that the regular chooses. Style surveyed local restaurateurs about their regulars, and gathered some celebrity names along with some real, shall we say, cookies-and-milk endings.

Gertrude’s at the BMA, John Shields,  chef/owner
“This one regular loved Merlot. He’d come in four times a week to sit at the bar, order two glasses of Merlot and have a bite to eat.  He’d consume the whole bottle of wine, but the rule was, he’d only say he drank two glasses. We’d only charge him for two glasses. He’d drink three-quarters of his glass and the bartender would keep filling it up a little more so it never went completely empty. He’d get quite lit. Sometimes he’d laugh with us.  Sometimes he’d cry and we’d have to call a cab to take him home. He came in so much that he became like family. If a bartender wasn’t used to him and they charged him for more than two glasses, he’d say, ‘No, no, no! I only had two glasses.’  He just became one of the characters in the show.”

Aldo’s ristorante italiano, Alessandro Vitale, co-owner
“So we have a regular customer, who brings his daughter in all the time.  She watches all the cooking shows.  She decided she wanted a birthday party here. We were closed, but we had a special party for her and her friends, along with a cooking demonstration.  The girls had their own special tables and they made homemade pasta, then other arts and crafts, then they went back into the kitchen and had their pasta cooked.  Then they got to take their pasta makers with their homemade pasta home with them.  It was a rare above-and-beyond event at Aldo’s. For a regular customer who comes in maybe three or four times a week, though, it was a good thing for all of us. His daughter had been coming in there since she was 2 or 3, and they come every Saturday night for the family dinner.  She was a regular customer that started at a very young age.”

Joey Chiu’s, Mimi Yu, co-owner
“At least 80 percent of our diners are regulars.  They either eat in [the dining room] or at the bar…  just like ‘Cheers.’ Many come in every day, some come two or three times a week.  They know each other, talk across the table at each other. Even the bartenders and busboys are their friends. Recently, there was a big celebration, and these regulars wanted to have a big round table.  We didn’t have advance notice to set this up, and we have square tables.  So we assembled all our smaller tables into a round configuration and accommodated them.  They had a great time and we were glad to do it.”

The Milton Inn, Brian Boston, chef/owner
“Taylor and Laura Pickett come in and sit in the hearth room, at table 31, for family dinners and business meetings.  But when they come in alone, they sit at a very narrow, tiny table, that’s maybe 15 inches wide, so they can sit at the sofa and eat. She knows I like riding English-style, so she got me a pair of silver spurs. They take us to the ballgames, we go to dinner with them. We always do their Omega holiday party. They like this dish that used to be just a shrimp and dill sauce, but they wanted it to be more of an entrée item.  That’s how one of our entrées came about, the Seafood Andor (named after their farm): rockfish, lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, mussels, vegetable risotto and creamy dill sauce.”

The Wine Market, Ryan Shacochis, general manager
“From time to time, we get someone who will come in and they’ll be in the mood for something that isn’t in season or isn’t running as a special.  One customer comes in, and every single time he asks if the chef can do a soufflé, which we’ve never had on our menu and probably never will have on our menu. However, since he’s such a good customer and he spends a lot of time with us, we’ll do it.  Another time, a regular customer had forgotten his five-year wedding anniversary up until that day. He called in a panic, asking if there was anything we could do for him.  I talked to the chefs, and we pulled together a seven-course tasting menu, making it seem as if he’d planned it all along: ‘This is the wine you selected for this course,’ etc. I literally saved his bacon! But we like doing that for people.”

The Valley Inn, Bud Leake, owner
“We’re the last of all the old restaurants from the ’30s and ’40s here— 88 years we’ve been here.  Regulars? You bet we’ve got them. Not only that, I know all their genealogy, because their relatives were my regulars, too.  There were a bunch of them in here the other night: ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about’ and so I began to tell them about their uncles and cousins who used to come in here.  We throw weddings, wedding receptions, funeral parties. A mother and daughter come in almost every day for lunch and to play Canasta.  We also have these groups that come in with crazy names, like the S.N.O.P.s [the Society of Northern Baltimore Psychiatrists] and the F.A.G.S. [The Friday Afternoon Gourmet Society].”

Sotto Sopra, Natalia Kashevarova, server/manager
“We have a regular customer, his name is Steven, he comes here with his wife all the time, and he really wanted to experience our restaurant on a different level— he wanted to be a host. So one Saturday he was the host. He learned how to use our Open Table program— taking reservations, etc. He and the guests had a lot of fun.  And we have proposals.  One guy invited a magician, and the girl he was proposing to thought it was just a regular performance.  She was very surprised when the magician whipped out the ring for her.”

The Rowhouse Grille, Scooter Holt, bartender
“There are some regulars who come in, and, well, it can be really awkward. Here’s an example: I’ve been bartending and waiting on this guy for a year and a half.  He and I’ve discussed his divorce, his girlfriend’s cheating, his son coming out of the closet— and suddenly it dawns on me, ‘I don’t even know this guy’s name!’ It becomes a kind of game trying to figure it out.  You ask the waitstaff and they say, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who lives off Light Street whose son just came out of the closet, right?’ But they don’t know his name.  We know all the intimate details of his life, but nobody knows his name.  But you can resort to trickery:  A new server gets hired, and you can ask him to find out. And invariably, they tell you and you forget it anyway.”

Tark’s Grill, Bill Shriver, operating partner
“We have a couple that have come in here and have made 150 reservations, exactly, since we first opened in 2008. We’ve been open for 700 days. That means they’ve come almost a quarter of the time we’ve been open. They always have to sit in the same booth. We generally don’t put tablecloths on our booths, but when they come, we put a tablecloth down for them.”

City Cafe, Bruce Bodie, co-owner
“One of our most famous regulars for a while was Julia Roberts.  She came in while she was filming ‘Runaway Bride’— always for brunch— and that was kind of fun. When we spotted her, we’d call the regulars who wanted to know when she was going to come in, then 20 minutes later a group would be surrounding her. She always came in for brunch— standard brunch fare and lattés.  And Katie O’Malley comes in. John Waters, a few times. One of my favorite stories doesn’t have to do with a celebrity, though.  It’s how waitstaff can affect a regular.  One of my bartenders was telling one of his regulars about a pair of boots he really wanted. After the woman ate, she tipped $200 over the check and told him to buy the boots.”

The Prime Rib, David Derewicz, general manager
“We do have local celebrities, fine people.  Barry and Jane Bronstein sit at the end of the bar.  I’ve been here 33 years; they’ve been coming since she wasn’t old enough to drink, for 45 years. When they’re not there, people ask for them.  They cultivate relationships with everyone.  And, literally, if they’re not traveling, they’re in The Prime Rib every Saturday night— probably 45 Saturday nights out of the year.  With some of these guests, we can set our clock on their dining patterns. Will Sirota, the local Baltimore attorney, he’s another one who comes in all the time.  When he’s out to dinner, he’s at The Prime Rib, at the end of the bar. It all started with cigars.  He didn’t want his smoke to be offensive to anyone so he’d sit under the exhaust fan.  He’d call ahead to make sure there’d be a seat.  One time, we got yellow police tape and cordoned off his chairs, so he’d know it was his area. We’ve also had custom-made seat covers with his name embroidered on them put onto his bar stool.

Another regular was Wilson Lau, a very eclectic businessman. He drove his clients in his own limo and he was the driver!  He always took table No. 1.  The to-be-seen table. The table you have to walk in front of to get into the second dining room. He wouldn’t speak to the waiter— he’d use hand gestures.  He’d put up his finger and twirl it discreetly for another drink. He’d open and close his hands as if he were praying, and that meant he wanted the menu. He had the same dishes, the same drinks, the same server.  That transcended into every aspect of his dining experience and went on for 45 years!”

Baltimore Style magazine, November 2010

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