Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Josh Mayo [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Panzano is one of seven Denver restaurants to hold a AAA four diamond rating, which is a distinction awarded to upscale restaurants with imaginative food and truly stellar service. Between the the beautiful dishes created by chef Elise Wiggins and the very attentive service orchestrated by GM Josh Mayo, Panzano rarely disappoints. Mayo, a Lettuce Entertain You vet out of Chicago, is in his fifth year at Panzano. He recently sat down with Eater to discuss life in the front of the house, Denver restaurant week and the art of accommodation.
How is restaurant week going at Panzano? Good. It's been busy and exciting every night.
How many restaurant weeks have you survived now? This is my fifth restaurant week at Panzano and my twelfth in Denver.
What are some of your gatekeeper tools and tricks of the trade?
There aren't really any tricks to it. I do try and remind my staff to go back to basics. There's not really a mad science to running a restaurant, it's just about remembering why we're here in the first place. We're here to create experiences for people and to make sure that those experience are great. We're here to make sure that everyone who walks in the door feels like it's worth the money. The restaurant business is definitely challenging and there's all kinds of things that come up every day, but if we look at the challenges and remind ourselves why we're here — because we love getting people excited and showing them a good time — I think it's easy to manage through it, especially during restaurant week.
You're definitely busy during restaurant week, but what days/nights tend to be the busiest during normal business? For the most part, we're busy at lunch during the week and Friday/Saturday nights.
Do you have to wait for a table if you don't have a reservation?
Sometimes. This restaurant is pretty big, so it takes a lot for us to go on a wait, but it happens sometimes.
So if you don't have a reservation, Panzano has a table? Most of the time. During restaurant week? Maybe not. Although I will say, even during restaurant week, there are times when we can find something. We have flexibility with all of the lounge seating, and we're able to serve the full menu anywhere.
What's the ratio of hotel guests to locals during a service? It tends to differ by meal. Breakfast is mostly hotel guests, but on the weekends it's more 50/50. Lunch is primarily local business with a small percentage of hotel guests. Dinner tends to be a bigger mix, maybe 40/60.
Tell us about working with chef Wiggins. It's an amazing partnership. I've never worked with a chef or business partner like her before. Her understanding of the entire business, her focus, her attention to what the guest wants — it's great. I've worked with a lot of chefs and business partners over the years, and I've never worked with someone who's so focused on doing the right thing for the guest. She understands the business from all sides because she's spent time on both sides. If a guest says that they don't like something, she's very in tune with that. She'll fix it or change it. When we plan a menu change, she runs her ideas as specials for a month, at minimum. She always tells the servers that she wants feedback that's "smack your mama good." If it's not, then it doesn't go on the menu.
How do you treat your VIPs? If someone who's famous wants to be discrete, we have the reputation that we're going to take care of that. I truly think most of them want to be treated like everyone else. They just want to hang out and not worry about being bothered. In all my years, I've never experienced a staff that's so consistently professional about that. Robert Plant is someone who sticks in my mind because when got back to his hotel, he told the guys at the Hyatt to call and say, "Hey, you've got to tell those guys that their place is amazing. I love the way they treated us." I asked the server why he hadn't mentioned anything and he said, "I don't know, I just felt like he was with his girl and wanted to hang out and relax." Our staff is very confident and professional and they know how to take care of people.
You're very proud of your service, so where do you go when you want to be taken care of? I love Table 6. I love the service there because it's always attentive. We don't get out as often as we used to because we have two little kids, but when we do, we definitely notice the places that make a big difference for us. We love places that are able to take care of our kids. For me, as a parent and as a restaurateur, I see two sides. As a parent, if I'm a foodie and I like to dine out, but I've got my kids with me, small accommodations can make the experience memorable. If they make sure my kids have everything that they need, it makes a big difference to me because next time I'm out and without my kids, I'll likely want to go back to that place. From a business side, and as the GM here, I realize that Panzano isn't the kind of place you'd really think to take your kids to, but we are in a hotel, and we should cater to that. The service staff knows that if two people walk in with kids, they may not be out with their kids next time, so it's important that they have a good experience.
Speaking of accommodations, what's the furthest you've gone to accommodate a guest? If we have enough advance notice, we can make a lot of things happen. Elise brought in a veal chop for someone because we didn't have one on the menu. Aside from the restaurant, we also cater banquets and private dining in the hotel. While we're an Italian restaurant, we've decided in the past couple of years that if someone wants Mexican on their menu, it's available. We don't promote it, but if they really want it, we could go that far. Elise is a powerful chef.
What about in the front of the house? As far as service goes, I've had servers go across the street to the 7 Eleven to get a Dr. Pepper for someone. I mean, why not?
Is that your philosophy? Our philosophy is that if you can do it, do it. If you're saying no to someone, and there's not a good reason why you can't do it, then why are you saying no? Sometimes it's way too busy. I honestly think that It's important to be speak the whole truth to people. If you're too busy, then tell them that. Most of the time people are going to really appreciate that you told them the truth about why you can't do something.
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