This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that work the host station at some of Charleston's most popular restaurants.
It would be unfair to simply label Mickey Bakst as the general manager of Charleston Grill. Maître d' might be more fitting, but it still isn't a title that completely conveys the level of attention and warmth he brings into the dining room each night. Bakst's emphasis on impeccable service is clear to any patron who has ever walked through the emerald archway decorating the fine dining establishment's entrance.
Bob Waggoner, former chef at the Grill, brought Bakst aboard in 2004, and he's revolutionized the Lowcountry's idea of guest relations ever since. He truly cares that everyone leaves with a smile and a sense of "damn, that was a great evening."
Could you explain your thoughts on front-of-house service?
I'm old school, plain and simple. I'm from the era before the chef became a celebrity. I'm from the class that thinks restaurants are not just about eating—they're about the experience. Restaurants are about the magic and the joy of communicating and seeing people. Eating is just one of the components of the dining experience. It's about the atmosphere. It's about the way you're treated. It's the warmth in which you're greeted and received.
I love the way the air feels against my cheek, as I walk to meet somebody and shake their hand. I love the magic of seeing two people sitting there and looking at each other as they experience sheer joy from the way they've been treated—from the way they've been seated, to the taste of their food, to the sip of their wine. But, that's not what restaurants tend to be about these days, unfortunately. I truly believe, when a guest pays money, they are paying for an entire package, and I think we've moved away from that.
I think that concrete floors and wooden tables and paper napkins are hip and cool, but we've lost the focus on service. Now the focus is on where the food is from—my focus is, is it good? Thomas Keller said recently, it's not about local, it's about the best ingredients possible to create the best dining experience for your guests. If they're local, fabulous, grab them, but if they're not, then make sure you are giving your guests the best.
For me, the new challenge is the young person. They're going to lots of restaurants and spending money, and they're coming to us because other restaurant employees (our biggest proponents are other servers) send them here. They come to us not knowing what to expect—they've heard it's too formal or they've heard it's a little stuffy—and all of a sudden they have this magical night and they go, "wow." Three weeks later, they're back with friends. I don't care how long you've been doing this, that's still a great feeling.
I've been doing this for 41 years, and I still drive home and can see that customer that truly got it. It gives me a jolt that is joyous, today, as it was decades ago. My wife will tell you that I come home and tell her about all the guests that came in.
Would you say things have changed at Charleston Grill since you came aboard?
Oh, yes. The Grill was a totally different experience before I was there. It was enough to put you to sleep: servers moved very slowly, everything was formal, the room was totally dark, there was no airflow and it was stagnant. My job, as the way I saw it, was to change it and make it more warm, inviting, comfortable, for everyone to come and eat. That's what I set out to do and that's what we, everyone together, accomplished.
It's 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a party of two?
An hour or an hour and a half. Remember, we work on reservations. We know who is coming in every night. Our restaurant isn't the kind of restaurant you decide at 8:00 p.m. to come in at 8:30 p.m. Our goal is to fill up all of the reservations, so that's a little bit different than other restaurants.
Is there anything guest can do to make their wait shorter? e.g. can you be bribed?
People absolutely try. If I were to ever take a bribe, it means that somebody is not going to get what they're expecting, and I just don't think there's any money worth that. I've never thought there was. It's about making everybody's experience what it should be and if you're bumping somebody for money, you're bumping somebody. It just isn't right—not in my world.
What's your essential gatekeeper tool?
My personality. A maître d' has the ability to talk to anybody. If I don't have a dinner table, I'll set you up at the bar. If I can't get you what you want, I'll try to find a substitute. The way one says, "I apologize, I can't," determines the way the guest feels. I tell my employees that if they have to apologize, they should do it in a manner that they truly feel sorry. The guest can't walk away and say, "Dammit, she didn't care." They need to walk away and say,"Man, I felt bad for her because she was really sad she couldn't get me a table."
Has this always been your personality?
I struggled for years. I truly struggled for years, because I didn't have to work for my skill. I felt "less than" for years. I didn't have to go to school for it. I didn't have to fight to get it. My folks gave me, what I think, is a gift. I have the ability to communicate in a way that touches people. I was born with a gift, and I believe that with all my soul. The gift is the unbelievable ability to make people feel good. I don't take it for granted. I am in awe of it. There are days I say things, and I don't know where it comes from—it's not bullshit, though! It comes from inside of me. The best thing is, like I tell everybody, every single day, I am given the gift of making somebody smile.
When you're not at Charleston Grill, where's your favorite place to go and eat?
The truth is, my favorite place to eat in the city, is hands down, unequivocally, without hesitation, is my wife's kitchen. [Pulls out iPhone and brings up some stunning food photos] This is shrimp and crab tower with avocado and tomato—this was a casual appetizer. Look at that! I come home, and she's made roasted Cornish game hens with potatoes and fennel. I wake up and there's a breakfast frittata with ricotta cheese and asparagus and four lemon pies she baked. Moroccan lamb with couscous and vegetables. She makes me my own strawberry milkshakes and she gives me a striped paper straw! The greatest thing for me to do when I'm not working is to be with my wife. I love, love, love, love her. I worship the ground she walks on and I feel blessed she's come into my life. It's the greatest thing ever.
Bakst is as generous with his praise of partner as he is with his time. As the interview ended, he was off to one of his many charity meetings around town. When Bakst isn't in the restaurant, he's busy lending his talents to bring together people to help others. He is currently the president of Feed the Need and co-founder of Teach the Need.