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.
Bryan Dayton, co-owner/beverage director of Oak at Fourteenth in downtown Boulder, doesn't believe in sleep or mediocrity. From Oak's ambiance to their award-winning cocktails and co-owner/chef Steven Redzikowski's highly praised wood-fire cooking, Dayton has every reason to be proud. He did power through a complete disaster, after all. After opening in November 2010, Oak was quickly becoming one of Boulder's most sought after tables, but when it went up in smoke in March 2011, the inside of the restaurant was barely salvageable. With a burning determination, Dayton and Redzikowski reopened Oak in December 2011, giving Boulder an even bolder restaurant. Dayton recently sat down with Eater to discuss Oak's wild success, how to score a table and why he's never accepted bribes.
What was business like before the fire, and what's it like now? Well, we’ve been open a little bit longer than we were the first time. But the community support has been an amazing thing that has really helped with the reopening because people knew about the fire, or maybe didn’t know about Oak before, and any press is good press, even though it was really bad press. But to-date, we have been growing every month which is a really positive sign.
You now serve lunch, dinner and late night. What are your busiest nights? We’re open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m, everyday. Dinner service starts at 5:30, and Thursday through Saturday we do late night from 10 p.m. until midnight. We’re trying to grow that late night crowd. In terms of our busiest nights, Tuesdays have been really intense. I think it’s because there are so many business travelers going through Boulder. Then Thursday through Saturday are always cranking.
How long does it typically take to get a table at Oak? If you don’t have a reservation, we always keep 35 percent of the room available for walk-ins at all times because it’s really important to us to be that neighborhood restaurant and bar. But once we go on wait-list and we're full, you’re looking at minimum of 45 minutes on those busy nights.
Do you take reservations every night of the week? We do. We have reservations, but we don’t offer reservations between 6:30 and 7:45 p.m., just through the way we try to run the room. We try to keep the room consistent and get two turns out of it, at all time.
What should people should know about getting a table faster at Oak? Is there anything customers can do? OpenTable is a little bit harder because we only offer 65 percent of the room. I notice people will come in and say, “Ah, I couldn’t get a reservation on OpenTable,” and then they walk in and there are several tables available. So the biggest thing people should know is even if you can’t get a table on OpenTable, call us. And on top of that, we encourage you to walk in. We always want that walk-in traffic because we want people to walk in and be able to get a table. And if it’s a little wait, we’ll always get you started with a cocktail and we’ve got lots of bar space for people to sit, too.
Have you ever been offered a bribe or gift from a customer who wanted to be seated immediately? For sure. I’ve had several different people offer what you call a “handshake”, you know? I have to say, there have been some tough ones not to turn down, but I’ve never accepted anything. Several times, someone will walk in and say, “Hey, how much would it cost to get a table at this time?” And sometimes, it has been a couple hundred bucks offer that could changed my night, but I have been adamant not to take that. But hey, I respect them, they’re forward thinkers, right?
What’s your secret to balancing the restaurant and being behind the bar? It’s hard, but I’ve got a really great bar and wine team. It is different now because I’ve been taking over more of a maître d’ role and it’s exciting. I’ve always been behind the bar most of my career and sometimes I do miss it, so I’m still behind the bar sometimes making drinks. People come in and ask me to make them a drink and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll go back and make drinks.” The biggest thing is having systems in place. Right now, I do have a strong hold on all the cocktails we make, as those are all my cocktails. I would love to see my bartenders take over more of those roles, where it’s less about me and more about helping them grow their careers.
Essentially all your reviews and press have been wildly positive. What do you think is the secret to Oak’s success? That’s a tough one. I was just talking to Steve [Redzikowski] my chef/partner about that last night. We both are really intense and passionate about what we do and we don’t accept mediocrity in our lives. That portrays in both of our careers. That intensity helps us excel. To be honest, I also think it makes it hard for us too. This is our only baby and it's all we have. If we lost it, I think that it would be a devastating blow to both of us. That has been motivation as well, and helps us focus on what our expectations are. We expect so much out of ourselves, so we expect our staff to bring that too. We’re on the front lines with our staff most days, so if Steve isn’t here, I’m here and visa-versa. We both take Sundays off, which is the only day you might not see us, even though both of us are sneaking around and hanging out in one facet or the other. We’re mostly right in the mix with everyone, all the time.
How was your latest visit to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans? Anyone or anything inspire you? We did a tasting seminar around sensory perceptions with Bombay Sapphire and they had these smelling kits that teach you a different way to think about gin and the entire gin category. It gives you more perception into what’s going on inside that bottle. You can placate that into everything you taste, which I thought was fun and educational for everyone who was there. We also worked the Employees Only party, and our crew worked 17 hours that day — it was insane. Working with those guys was a phenomenal inspiration and I would love to have that team here 24/7. They’re animals. It was inspiring to see that work ethic and passion behind throwing a party.
You have an international reputation as a mixologist and travel to many competitions and events. How are you able to balance running Oak and your competition career? It’s a challenge to balance for sure. I’m getting a lot better with it. There are certain weeks that are tough, but it’s all residual marketing. At the end of the day, as far as competitions go, I would probably see doing that a little less. I do love that world, and in today's marketplace, it's such a huge thing. I love working with the brands and going to events. For example, I had to go to Morocco for Bombay, I’ll go to the Berlin Bar Show, and I just got back from Tales of Cocktail. But at the same time, in our business, we go to Aspen Food and Wine and it’s just the same thing. It’s all an extension of my personality and part of my DNA. Steve supports it, but still, it can be tough because when I have external work to do, I try to do it on my two days off, which usually leaves me with no time off. I don’t believe in sleep. And I don’t believe in mediocrity and slowing down. It’s not part of my DNA.
We hear you’re planning on dry-aging meat in your basement and potentially bottling your cocktails. Is that still in the works? There might be potential plans for both of those projects. We’re looking at a couple different things right now. The first is the dry-aged locker downstairs, so we are planning for that. It would be really cool, especially with the wood-fire cookery that we do since there are so many things we could do that would be amazing. I’m a huge proponent of it, and we’ve got the space for it. Right now, we have our house bottled non-alcoholics that we’re starting to sell at Bayleaf and Cured, which have been going well. Looking at the alcohol side of those is kind of a bigger Pandora’s box because when you’re dealing with alcohol, you’re dealing with a lot of different facets. But there are definitely some ideas that are out there for sure.
What do you foresee for the future of Oak? What about another restaurant or expansion? I think there will be some fun things coming down the road. Right now, we’re focused on this [Oak] as there’s still a lot of work to be done right here. There are still a lot of people who haven’t walked into the doors at Oak. But, I think there’s a lot of potential, in a lot of directions for us here.