Welcome to The Gatekeepers, a monthly feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tough-to-get tables.
Sean Kenyon [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Sean Kenyon's Williams & Graham is all the rage lately, and while his 1920s bookstore speakeasy does require entering through a non-traditional entrance (the bookcase door isn't exactly a secret), it's not a stiff place bound by rules. Reservations aren't required, a dress code isn't enforced, mingling is encouraged and cell phones are welcome. Since it opened last November, Williams & Graham has quickly become one of the city's most popular destinations, and the creative menu executed by chef Dave Bumgardner doesn't play second fiddle to the libations either. Here now, co-owner and bartender Sean Keyon on reservations, free staff meals for industry folks and why he didn't make a drink with stripper urine.
What's your busiest night? There's not a night where we're not busy, but Wednesday through Saturday seems to be the busiest.
If you don't have a reservation, are you getting in? Absolutely. We only reserve a third of the space every night and there's room for about 80 people. The rest is for walk-ins. Everyone wants to sit at the bar, which is reserved for walk-ins, but we have five booths and four tables. We only reserve four of those. There's also the community table and standing room.
What's the best time to walk-in? Before 7 p.m. or after 10 p.m., but anytime between then we're on a wait.
What's the longest wait been so far? Three and a half hours, and that was last Friday. To combat the wait we've implemented call-ahead seating where you can call and get yourself on the waiting list. We could make more money if we pulled more guests in, but we really want people to feel comfortable.
What's the dress code? Come as you are. We don't enforce a dress code. You need shoes and a shirt, but other than that, come as you are.
Williams & Graham has kind of earned a reputation of being a little more relaxed compared to other speakeasies. You told The Denver Post a couple weeks ago that you didn't want Williams & Graham to be a speakeasy with a bunch of rules. How have people reacted to that? They've reacted well. I'm of the strong belief that people want to walk-in and enjoy themselves without the restrictions of a stiff atmosphere. If someone needs to take a call, that's fine. If someone wants to walk over and say hello to friends at another table, that's fine too. In the era of speakeasies the rules existed before the door. Once you got in, all bets were off. It was the art of getting in — then everything goes.
Where are you drinking when you're not at your own bar? My Brother's Bar and Highland Tap & Burger.
Tell us about the family meal program you've started. I've always wanted to own a bar where we take care of our own. Anyone in the hospitality industry can walk in and ask for the family meal and we'll give them a free plate of food.
Judging by your tweets, they're not bad meals. In recent weeks you've served meals like chèvre mac and cheese with chicken and rosemary and open-face meatloaf sandwiches. Does that get expensive? We make a lot of big pot meals, so it's not that crazy. If you just need a meal and some water, I'm cool with that. I've been doing this for 26 years and I wish there had been a place that offered what we offer here. It's really meant to take care of our own, and I truly mean that.
Do you get any VIPs? We've had football players come in and the singer from The Fray tweeted that we had the best cocktails in Denver.
Do VIPs get perks? Everyone should feel like a VIP. I don't agree with giving people special privileges. There's nothing worse that walking up to a place and feeling like there's a velvet rope.
What's good tipping etiquette at Williams & Graham? I may not be the right person to answer that question. I don't look. I take the receipt and put it right in the register. Tips are a courtesy. You have to earn them. In Denver, or anywhere, I think if your attitude is great, your tips are usually great. If you're in it for the cash, your patrons are going to know. Tips aren't something you're owed. If you don't make people happy, you don't deserve it. If you suck, you should get nothing.
What's the secret to your success? Our goal is to always be a neighborhood bar with exceptional hospitality. There's a reason we're still packed with 14 inches of snow on the ground. People come back to visit bartenders, not to revisit drinks.
What's the strangest request you've ever gotten? It wasn't in Denver, but I ran The Yellow Rose strip club in Austin for eight and half years. I had a gentleman ask if I would make a cocktail with a stripper's urine. He had someone lined up to do it too.
Wow. How did you react to that? I threw him out. Not only did I not want to make it, but I didn't want to see him drink it.
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· Williams & Graham Coverage [~EDen~]