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.
The Second Floor restaurant at the Westin Galleria in North Dallas has a different charge than its other high-end brethren that aren't tethered to a hotel. That's why they've got a guy like Jason Henry to manage the many and various demands of its many and various patrons--from VIP hotel guests to suburbanites looking for a nice meal or a night out. We sat down with Henry, who's worked as chef and manager alike, and talked about what it's like to get everyone at the Second Floor seated--and happy.
Sure, Henry tells us, they'll still "make a damned quesadilla if we need to," but the Second Floor is fundamentally a boutique-style restaurant in a large hotel. They're allowed to set their own directions and menu, which means trying out, say, molecular mixology along with standard dishes like club sandwiches or roast chicken. With so many people to please, Henry says, at the Second Floor, there's "never a dull moment."
What's your background? You were a chef, now you're a GM?
I was in international business school at A&M but I always loved to cook, so I decided to go that route. Is tarted working at small eateries in the little town I was going to school in and worked my way up. I was a sous chef within the first year and got to know that scene. Then I got accepted to the CIA in New York and traveled around, but I landed back in Houston at the Conrad Hilton school of restaurant management and from there, I kind of spread my feelers out and got some jobs in the kitchen management style stuff, corporate style restaurants. I like that because of the structure and the benefits, it’s different from the mom and pop places. They have their benefits, but it’s nice to be sturdy and not wonder if you’re going to have a paycheck in a couple of weeks.
Paychecks are nice, aren't they?
Health insurance is like, a golden ticket. I’d say ten years ago nobody had health insurance and now it’s a big bonus. Just getting a paycheck was a big thing. I worked with Café Express, they put me through college. I went through the management training with them. By the time I was 21 I was already a GM. I stayed with them for eight years and grew away from the chef part and became more an operations guy, in the finance part. My dad’s a business owner, restaurant owner and I wanted to go the business route.
Then I got into sommelier stuff, went to sommelier school. I worked with a small seafood company here in town and that worked for a couple of years, and then I found this position. After several different restaurants I’m here now. We’ve grown a lot in the past three, three and a half years. We came on board here with our consultants that own Bijoux here in town, which is a fantastic restaurant, and took leadership and direction from them on the fine dining world. I was never in fine dining, I was in the kitchen, but as far as the service and the detail, I definitely got a lot of the tricks of the trade from them. In three years we’ve grown a lot.
So, what's the Second Floor about?
Now we run a really successful, cool little hotel restaurant. We try not to be a hotel restaurant but we are. We don’t try to play that role, but we are a signature restaurant and we kind of do what we want to do. We can tweak our own wine list and cocktail list and do a bunch of cool, seasonal, menu changes every two or three months. We don’t have the big Starwood corporate saying, you have to do this. Those questions are asked, you know, they say if we want to do this we definitely can, but you don’t have to. We say hey, we like the direction we’re going, and we want to do this. They haven’t had too many questions to ask and they’ve supported us on that. It’s a nice little cool restaurant.
How do you manage a local feel with your massive corporate overlord owners at Starwood?
That’s the biggest roadblock that we have. We are in a hotel, and we have to provide hotel-style service and to our Starwood VIP’s that have stayed at every Westin, theys till want that Westin feel. We’re still mandated to give the great Westin service and the hotel style aspect, but we wanted to be able to use local ingredients and have our own freedom to branch off and do molecular mixology which hadn’t been done in Dallas yet. We started to do that and it kind of put us on the forefront in the marketing and PR world. Everyone wanted a piece of us when we did the molecular stuff. And after we saw that, we said hey let’s try some different things. We’ve grown with seasonal cocktails and cool wines.
We still have to have that club sandwich. And a filet. And a fire-roasted chicken. Those are the things that sell, and it makes our hotel guests happy, you know, we get them three or four times a week that are Starwood platinum guests that wants consistency. So we have to play that game, but it’s all the mid-level managers and account managers from Iowa and Cincinnati, they’re not going to want to do the foie gras torchon or the peanut butter bacon brownies. After ten thousand calls of quesadillas and nachos, we’ll fight it but we’ll still make a damned quesadilla if we need to.
But as a hotel, you must have some demanding and interesting VIP's?
Here, if it’s a platinum guest, they’re going to get in. they can sit wherever they want to, and they’re going to get whatever they want. Or it’s going to be brought to other facilities in the hotel, and they’re going to take care of it. And the guest will get what they want. That’s some of the competition we have, is just the hotel. We do all the room service. We do all the pool service and we do the more VIP style banquets. If someone says I’ve got 200 people, we’re going to do something above and beyond.
Any wacky room service stories?
The room service is definitely different, you’re dealing with someone you don’t get to see. You don’t get to do the service attitude. You get the crazy phone calls and the kids that try to buy a bottle of Cristal and the guy from Cincinnati who’s drank too much and has a couple girls in his room and realized the next morning that he can’t have this on his account, he’s calling, ‘It wasn’t me!’ I deal with that a lot. Trying to research signatures, people saying it wasn’t me, I’m like yeah it was. I’ve had bottles of Dom trying to be returned on me and I’m like dude, we were in your room last night, that was you! Checking video tape and signatures. You get a lot of people that come back from their meetings and have a good evening out somewhere, and come back here and buy shots for the whole bar and the next day, they’re like, shiiit, that wasn’t me.
What's a typical night like here? Is there a typical night?
Tuesday through Thursday night, it’s the pharmaceutical reps, and architects or a doctors convention, but on the weekend it’s suburbanites and Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana families in here on vacation. So you flip to a whole different demographic. Then it’s crowd control on the weekend, so there’s kids running wild and craziness. And we do breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it can be a beating. You know, you finish breakfast and quickly get ready for lunch, then the cowboy game gets out and the folks are here from that, then at 10:30 everybody comes back from the bars, and it’s that again. Up and down and up and down. We are a 24 hour operation, and there’s always something going on somewhere, something crazy happening. Fires to put out. People to calm down. Never a dull moment. It is high stress, but it’s fun.