Surprise hordes evoke dread, excitement from restaurant staff – Albany Times Union

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The dining room at dp: An American Brasserie in Albany filled up instantly when an unannounced party of 33 walked in on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Most restaurants always prefer reservations for parties larger than about eight people but will accommodate if possible.
ALBANY — The dinner rush had dwindled Tuesday night at dp: An American Brasserie when people started streaming in. A representative of the unannounced group, in town for a conference, asked for tables for 20, which by the time everyone was seated had become 33.
Even in a regular climate, restaurant owners and employees have mixed feelings about being surprised by groups larger than, say, 10 people, to say nothing of 20 or 30 all wanting to sit down and eat at the same time. The extra business is beneficial, especially on slower nights, and many in the industry take pride in rising to the challenge of handling an unexpected onslaught. But they also know diners are setting themselves up for potential disappointment by walking in en masse with no notice, and almost no one employed in the hospitality business would themselves ever show up spontaneously with a party bigger than six or eight and expect to be seated.
“We had a lot of things go right that made it possible,” said Dominick Purnomo, who runs dp and its sibling, Yono’s, with his parents, though neither was working Tuesday night.
Purnomo noted that only about four tables of other customers remained in dp when the group arrived around 8:30 p.m., allowing staff to set up three large tables to spread the members among. Three servers, a food runner and a bartender all were still on duty in the front of the house, and the kitchen staff totaled six, including Purnomo, who was calling out orders and sending plates from the pass, and the pastry chef.
“We were lucky to have the A team on in the kitchen,” Purnomo said, adding that his records show rounds of shared appetizers and 33 entrees left the kitchen within 41 minutes of the orders being placed.
The City Beer Hall in Albany once had 40 people from a softball tournament all show up unannounced. Noting the beer hall’s seating arrangements, Dimitrios Menagias, its executive chef, said wryly, “Part of having communal dining is guests often assume (large groups are) what it’s there for.”
Big places are more likely to be able to accommodate big walk-in parties, of course, but having enough tables won’t lessen the difficulty of dozens of unexpected plates all expected by diners roughly at the same time. At 677 Prime in Albany, a walk-in of 30 people could could be assigned an upstairs room usually reserved for private dining, but the Lucas Confectionery in Troy, which has few broadly open areas in its interior, had to get creative to handle a surprise 20, as did the since-closed Pearl Street Pub when it was in it original location, which lacked the vastness of its later home in the Jillian’s building in downtown Albany.
Owners at all three, at least pre-pandemic, were happy for the chance for their teams to perform — and for the added income.
“We’ve always had the attitude, ‘Let’s just make it happen,'” said Jaime Ortiz, who owns 677 Prime, the 250-seat Toro Cantina in Colonie and the forthcoming Sea Smoke Waterfront Grill in Green Island.
Vic Christopher, who opened Lucas Confectionery nine years ago in November as the first business in what would become Clark House Hospitality, said, “It was mostly about figuring out the logistics, but I was like, ‘Bring it on.'”
Chris Pratt, who closed Pearl Street Pub in June after selling the Jillian’s building and is developing the historic Lark Tavern in Albany for reopening after buying it, said he negotiated with the walk-in party of two dozen for a way to seat and serve them without overtaxing his small kitchen staff.
“They were good about it, agreeing to choose from just a few apps and three or four entrees,” he said.
Acknowledgement from a large, reservationless group that their arrival flouts conventions and is likely an imposition goes a long way toward making a restaurant want to serve them, according to owners and managers.
“If they come in and they’re like, ‘We know this is a big ask. We’re willing to be flexible,’ we’ll try to accommodate them as best as we can,” said Brian Viglucci, co-owner of Albany-based BMT Hospitality, which owns eight locations of six restaurant concepts including Junior’s, Cafe Madison and The Point.
However, Viglucci said, “If they’re being really demanding and not recognizing the situation they put us in, we may be less inclined.”
Or not inclined at all under current staffing circumstances.
“We turn down walk-in or call-the-day-of parties of 20 to 25 several times a week,” said Dora Philip, owner of The Hollow Bar +  Kitchen in Albany. With a kitchen staff of no more than four people working in confined quarters, Philip said, “A (walk-in) 20-top throws everything off completely, and it’s not worth compromising the integrity of the experience of other diners.”
Brianne Baggetta, co-owner of the pub Dove + Deer in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood and its across-the-street sibling, Rosanna’s Italian Kitchen, said both are essentially too small to accept walk-ins of more than 10 (Rosanna’s) or 15 (Dove + Deer) under the best circumstances. Given current staffing levels, “If this happened now, it would be a strain,” Baggetta said.
All of the industry representatives interviewed were universal in their refusal to themselves ever spontaneously walk into a restaurant with a large party without a reservation. For some, the max would be six people; others said eight.
“Girlfriends of mine think nothing of just showing up somewhere as a 10-top or 12-top, and I tell them they’re crazy,” said Nancy Bambera, chief operating officer of the three-business DZ Restaurants in Saratoga Springs. Two of its places, Boca Bistro and Chianti Ristorante, do not have physically expansive layouts and are usually sufficiently busy that they simply couldn’t seat a large walk-in group, Bambera said. DZ’s biggest restaurant, Forno Bistro, has handled walk-in parties of 20, usually on its patios, but Bambera wouldn’t recommend it.
She said, “I would never show up unannounced with more than six, and I wouldn’t even try with six on a Friday or Saturday.”
Steve Barnes has worked at the Times Union since 1996, served as arts editor for six years, and since 2005 has been a senior writer. He generally covers restaurants, food and the arts, and is the Times Union’s restaurant columnist and theater critic. Steve was also a journalism instructor at the University at Albany for 12 years. You can reach him at [email protected] or 518-454-5489.

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