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.
Photos by Elizabeth Daniels
Joseph Sabato partnered with chef Steven Fretz (Top Round, XIV) last October to create a new dining affair on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Taking cues from San Francisco's lauded State Bird Provisions, Frez and Sabato envisioned a unique, dim sum-style service where trollies loaded with ready-to-eat dishes were carted around while diners picked the courses on a whim. Along with creative cocktails by barman Devon Espinosa, The Church Key has been an instant hit. Here now, Eater chats with Sabato about the growing buzz and how to land a seat during busy hours.
How did the idea for this concept come about? We wanted to have a dim sum experience that was approachable. People come in and they're starving. By the time you sit, order, get drinks, and wait for food, it's been 30 minutes before you actually eat. We were trying to alleviate that. The cart idea was for people that want to eat now.
You knew about State Bird Provisions, had you been there? No. We'd seen articles written about them and thought it was a great idea. They're definitely the guys who started it and we appreciate that. It makes it easier for us.
Did you feel like the concept was going to work with this space? That was the other thing. This is a large space and you have to have energy regardless of the time of day. The carts create this movement, this flow, and energy. People are always on their phones waiting for their food. The carts enable people to get food right away. But we still want people to enjoy the space, the ambiance, music, and service. People aren't really lingering, but we're not trying to be a turn-and-burn type place.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, what's the average wait for four? If you walk in, you're probably not going to get a table. We can put you on a list and realistically you'll get a table after 10 p.m., so at least a two hour wait. It's better to have reservations. The bar does seat 34 people, and we try to utilize the long tables, but we don't cram the seats in here. The best time to land a table is between 5:30 and 7 p.m.
What's the capacity? The space seems huge. We can do over 200. The capacity is actually 340 in 6,600 square feet. It's gigantor. We thought about how we could create energy. 50 people could make it look empty and we wanted to make sure we could always stay full. Also, the check average is about $55 to $60, with food costs at around 32%, which is high. But we'd rather have a packed restaurant than an empty one that has 28% food cost.
What's good on the menu right now? From the kitchen we have 16 items and we have 17 items on the carts, which change every night. That enables the kitchen to be creative and have fun. It's a shared plates concept, not small plates. People are not going to leave here hungry, they're going to be fed. The kitchen dishes are more family style while the cart items are a supplement, more snacky things. The pig eat cheetos and falafel have a following. I always recommend the chicken liver pate, crispy pork belly, and tai snapper tapioca.
What about the beverage cart? We make otter pop and canned cocktails on the cart. We have servers dress up as Pan Am stewardesses. Why? Well, chef and I have a love for the 50s and 60s. The Church Key comes from that. Pre 1960s, you needed a church key to open a can of beer. The Pan Am part comes from the fact that they were the epitome of service. So we're making classic 1990s cocktails like the Apple Martini, Lemon Drop, and Sex on the Beach. People love them, it's a fun new way of drinking. We give people a church key to crack open the canned cocktails themselves.
The cocktails seem rather reasonably priced for the neighborhood. Why? There's no need to overcharge. It's becoming ridiculous when Grey Goose martinis cost $16. There's no need for that. We all have Excel spreadsheets, but at the end of the day, it's about doing what's right for the guests.
What else is good to drink? It seems that cocktails overshadow the wine. We sell way more cocktails, we have great wine as well. People get hooked on cocktails. It's so different. Devon has training in the culinary sense, so he understands pairing cocktails with food. The Fashioned Chai and Shut the Funk Up are popular, but the Pink Lips is the number one seller. It's made with Grey Goose pear, champagne, and pomegranate seeds on the bottom. It's intended to be a girly drink, but everyone enjoys them, especially as a start to a meal.
What's in store for the future? Because this place is ours, we're not going to beat ourselves up and get burned out. We want to come to work and enjoy what we do. We're going to push the envelope and be creative. We believe this is a replicable concept, but we wouldn't just put this anywhere.