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
While Century City is far from a culinary destination, there are still plenty of powerful — and hungry — people around, looking to be fed. Enter Hinoki & the Bird, the eighteen month-old restaurant originally opened under chef David Myers. The business-heavy spot is built into the bottom floor of a towering residential apartment complex off of Avenue of the Stars, where foot traffic is nonexistent and the valet is always backed up.
Inside, the warm, bustling space is a surprising mix of indoor-outdoor, with sleek touches and a sound system just loud enough to keep things lively, without angering the old folks. General Manager Nick Moore runs the floor, making sure the industry whales are well tended to, while hitting first-time tables with the same smile and pressed wood business card. Moore sat down to talk about snagging seats at the chef's table, what it means to really become a regular and the smooth transition away from David Myers as the force behind the restaurant.
What's an average night on the floor look like for you? We're in a great position, in that we're still very busy. Every night we open at 6 p.m., and we're pretty full by 7 p.m. through 9:30 p.m. Our weekdays are pretty consistent, and Saturdays are extra busy. Mostly, I'm making sure our repeat guests are getting recognized and checking in on service standards. But most of my job is to entertain.
What would you say your greatest asset as a general manager is? Being that natural entertainer. I enjoy making people feel special. It fits my personality, and I just happen to be in a gorgeous environment with fabulous food. I found myself in a great place to let my strengths shine. The chef really has a great handle on the food, so I don't have to worry about that. I can just let my entertaining shine on the floor.
So who are you entertaining on an average night? It's a wide range of people, which I enjoy. Chef Myers really drew in a strong crowd from his work at Sona, and that was a huge early push for us. But overall, it's probably 40+, self-described foodies, wealthy, powerful. Now, with chef Kuniko Yagi, we're drawing in younger food people, who follow her from Top Chef and love her story.
People who haven't been to the restaurant may not realize how much outdoor space there really is. How are you able to use that to your advantage? It's a gorgeous patio space. We get our most requests for our patio, though I believe there are benefits to both, particularly with the open kitchen and seeing all the action. A lot of Kuniko's fans like to have that front row. People that want more quiet romantic dinners can go to the patio, though it's never really that quiet, with our energy. We've actually considered making a new, separate space that's entirely cut off from the rest of the patio. Right now, we're only semi-private, so that should be great for some of our customers.
How important has the lunch crowd been to what Hinoki & the Bird is doing? Lunch picked up over time. It started very quiet. Our guests were dining at their usual Grill on the Alley, The Palm. Once they discovered us, we've been able to build up that business. We're in that circuit now, but it took six months. We do about 140 covers for lunch, and 280 for dinner. And all of that is pushed mostly between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. It's wild in here for lunch.
If I stroll in at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night looking to get a table for two, how long am I waiting? We have a chef's table, as we call it, which is communal style seating, and that's often available if no large parties have it booked. So there is some open seating for walk-in, plus at the bar, but if that's booked up it can be a challenge. But because of the lack of foot traffic in the area, we don't get that too much. 90% of our business is reservation.
Is anyone ever sliding you cash in hopes of getting a quicker table? They try. We politely decline. It's hard to justify treating people better because they're giving you a gift. I've found that the best way to get a good table or be that last-minute reservation is to build that relationship with us as a restaurant. People who come often, take the time to greet us, send thank you's, connect with the kitchen. Those are the people I'm really happy to accommodate. But it's never monetary.
Have there been any shake-ups since David Myers left the dining group? We worked with great team to open the restaurant, and all of us are still here. Chef Kuniko has been here and was a strong part of everything from the beginning, so it was natural for her to helm this ship. She worked for David for ten years; they're still close friends. She really earned the position. And, thankfully, there's no change to be felt from a guest standpoint. It's been chef Kuniko from the beginning.
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