This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.[Photos: Andrea Grimes/EDFW]
David Uygur's Lucia, tucked away on Eighth Street over in the Bishop Arts District, has been building a reputation not only for fantastic hand-made pasta, world-class desserts and a mind-boggling salumi plate but also for being crazy difficult to infiltrate. Folks rise early on the first of the month to leave a message hoping and praying for a table in the following weeks. Weekends disappear almost immediately, and when reservations pop up empty and Lucia notifies their Facebook followers, seats are snatched in a matter of moments. We stopped by Lucia to talk to Jennifer Uygur (wife to the chef, at right, seated) and manager Fana Yohannes (formerly of York Street) about how they keep their reservation process fair and democratic. There's no favoritism at their 36-seat, 1100 square foot operation--just a dedication to making sure everyone gets a great opportunity to sit down and enjoy one of Dallas' best meals.
How many seats are there at Lucia?
Jennifer Uygur: there are 36 seats if you count the four at the bar, so 32 seats plus four at the bar. as far as seatings, it really varies, depends on the night. It's an Italian meal.
Fana Yohannes: Generally we seat the whole room maybe twice at the most. We have two tables that we leave out on the patio for walk-ins. The bar chairs are for walk-ins. Once in a while we will have on the weekends when we're busy and we're opening early, some tables turn three times, but not often. As you can see it's a very small restaurant, so that's the challenge to get everybody in and everybody fed and everybody happy. It's fantastic.
Why pick such a small space?
JU: When David and I were talking about doing the restaurant, it came down to that we wanted to create a place where we wanted to eat. Italy is our favorite place to travel, and we always enjoyed smaller, just kind of family-owned places that were just kind of off the beaten path. Not necessarily the fanciest or anything like that. we wanted a place that felt comfortable and felt like us. Also, it was really important for both of us, to, for him to be able to put his hands on dishes and be a part of it. He’s never been one to, he likes to be deeply involved with the food and be able to touch every plate before it goes out. For me, the wine side is mine. I’m able to be here every night. I’m able to talk with people about the food and the wine. And our vision was a small place. Because it is our place. It’s something we saved up for years to do. So in addition to wanting to feel like it was something that was comfortable and manageable for us, it’s also because this is not a restaurant concept per se. it’s something that we wanted to build. So we built something small and intimate. Somewhere we’d like to eat. That’s kind of how it worked.
FY: And I like to work where I like to eat.
JU: What we do is by taking reservations, and we did make the decision to make most of the tables for reservation. It’s because we do try to plan, you know, a comfortable way for everybody to be able to enjoy their dining experience. I think that’s first and foremost in our minds, you know. That you are able to enjoy it. Because the other option, I suppose, is to, you know ?
FU: Well, I mean, for a wait, let’s say, the four chairs at the bar or two tables outside, suddenly something happens and we have a last minute cancellation. As far as wait for the bar, people come and wait for an hour and a half or two hours, so we’ll send people out for a glass of wine at our neighborhood restaurants and then we call them on their cell phone and say, we have a place for you. We send them to Hattie’s, we got a lot at Bolsa.
And people still come back to have dinner here?
FY: Oh, absolutely.
JU: I think it’s what their taste buds are primed for. What’s interesting is how many people do come in and snag a seat at the bar, a lot.
FY: Especially on the weekends. Those chairs turn all night long.
So talk about the reservation process. First of the month, lines are open?
FY: The phone calls that come in on the first of the month when we take reservations for the next month is a lot.
JU: And we go in order. It’s the two of us. That’s another part of it. We’ve talked about other ways. It’s important to us that we’re able to build a relationship with people coming to see us. That’s why we’re here. We love the food. We love the people. So it’s important to us to be able to make those calls back. But it’s something that people don’t know that we’re a small place. We’re not staffed 24/7 with a bank of phone operators. So it’s two of us returning calls as quickly and efficiently as we can.
FY: And pretty much everybody that calls in, it stamps the time that you called in. It’s very fair, very democratic. And fair if you call in early. But I do want to say that we do have a waiting list. So if you have a specific date that you couldn’t get a reservation for, I can put you on my waiting list if we get cancellations, and we do. Because people make reservations far out. I’ll call and get them in. And it works! I promise. I always tell people that.
JU: And the hardest thing is when people aren’t flexible on time. They’ll say I’ve got one date, I can only come in on Saturday the 14th at 7 o’clock. Well, a small restaurant, obviously we can’t seat the whole restaurant at 7 p.m. we can’t have 32 people come in. So we have very few right at 7, on the dot, gotta be able to do it kind of things. We always tell folks if you can be a little flexible on time, if you can come in say between 6 and 8:30, I prefer 7, but any time in this time range is okay, that gives us a little more leeway and cuts down on phone tag. It also makes it more likely that we’ll have something, that we can make a table available.
Who are your favorite, repeat customers?
FY: Repeat customers are those that know when to call. So they are on it once a month at 9 o’clock. I have people call because they’ve been here for a few months and they know how to make tha reservation. So those would be the repeat customers. And there are some people who come and just sit at the bar and walk in and have dinner. I love to see everybody, of course. Neighborhood people that come in and utilize the outside patio or the bar, that’s always really fun.
JU: I couldn’t pick favorites either, but probably the most fun and one of the biggest compliments we do get is when people are sitting in here and they say we feel like we’re not in Dallas. They really feel like the food and just the atmosphere just reminds them of being in those places that David and I love to travel to. And that’s kind of a little piece away from the crazy business that is Dallas. It’s a little bit different. For me that’s my favorite thing, where they say this reminds us of that place!
FU: And growing up in New York, this kind of reminds me of that.
What are your favorite dishes?
FY: All of the pastas for me. Really. My favorite dish right now would be the tagliatelle, I think. And the ricotta and gnocchi. Really anything that they make. Seriously. I know it sounds really whatever, but I just love everything here.
JU: I'm wildly biased. Pasta is my end all, be all. If I skip a day of pasta they basically ask me what’s wrong. All the pasta dishes, it’s a tough call on which specifically, David changes the menu all the time. In the summer we’ve got fresh basil, fresh tomatoes, fresh zucchini. We’re rolling into fall so now I’m thinking ahead to him bringing back the butternut squash with bread crumbs and sage and browned butter. So for me, easily the pasta. It’s all handmade and there really is such a differenebce between fresh pasta versus dried pasta.
FY: Oh wait, the bread!
JU: I think we’re just carbohydrate gals when it comes down to it. I do love the pork shoulder, though. I’m married to the chef, so, I’ll be here talking for hours.
So what do you do when a VIP demands a table?
FY: I think once they come in and see how small we are people are pretty understanding. The reservations ystem that we use with chi s us is really, you make your reservation on time and you can get in, other than that, if you walk in, we’ll do our best to work with you. It’s really not, we don’t hold any tables in our pocket for VIP’s to call. That’s not done.
JU: that’s important to us, to feel like we’re as fair as possibly we can be about opening up. It is funny to see people coming around the corner, one guy walks in and he goes, OH! He stopped, OH! That’s why, going, where’s the upstairs? Is this it? Yes, this is really, really it. I think it really is a lot of people coming here and realizing it’s just that we’re small.
It’s not just that you're small, you’re also delicious.
FY: Well, being delicious doesn’t hurt. But we are a small restaurant for Dallas. That’s probably the biggest trick. Not much wiggle room. And no bar.
JU: We looked all over at Dallas. It was really important to us that it have a feel of a place where we wanted to be. We have good friends down here, and we’ve been coming down here, but we haven’t found a space that was quite right. Long story short, it’s a littlee bit smaller than we’d initially thought. But we didn’t think it was too small. It was definitely on the lower end, but it wouldn’t have been much bigger than this. We would never have been a 100 seat restaurant .
What are your best tables?
FY: That depends on what you want to get out of the evening. I don’t think there’s a bad table in this room. Of course the corners are nice. I kind of like the table there by the bar because you get to see what’s going on. But I think the bar seats are the most fun to me because you get to watch what the chefs are doing. I think every table is a good table.
JU: In 1100 feet, there’s not exactly a hidden one.