This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Ben Fileccia is the dapper gent that runs the floor at one of Esquire mag's favorite new restaurants, Sbraga. Fileccia joined the Sbraga team a little while ago after spending years in the Vetri organization at Osteria and Amis. Prior to that he spent almost a decade at Philly institution Rose Tattoo Cafe. With the recent deluge of attention being thrown at Sbraga, Fileccia has a lot on his plate, but makes it all work. Eater chatted up Fileccia about working with a TV chef, scoring a table on tough nights, and what gives him a sense of pride.
How long have you been working in the industry?
Man, I think it's been 15 years now. That's a long time. I started my life in food working on the beach down in Florida as a server for half a year, and then became a bartender. After a little while doing that I ended up here in the Philly area. I spent 10 years at the Rose Tattoo Cafe on Callowhill. I really learned a bunch about how to handle guests and make them happy. Then I went to work for Marc Vetri at Osteria, and then was tapped to be the opening GM of Amis, which was the biggest challenge of my life. After leaving Amis, I worked at Han Dynasty for a short time, and then Kevin (Sbraga) showed up. Here I am.
It's Saturday night at 8:00 P.M. What's the wait for a table? Probably around a half hour. Not too bad. Remember that in addition to our regular seats, we have seats at the chef's counter and at the bar which are always first come first served. We'll get you in there in short order.
Any tips for people trying to score a reservation on short notice? Just call. Honestly, if you walk through the door, we're going to seat you. It's funny, in some cases hosts are afraid to seat people, because they think it'll mess up the flow and put stress on the team. But, my feeling is just get people seated. We will take it from there and make the diner happy.
Do you have regulars at Sbraga? We do. Even though we're the new kid on the block, there are people we see once a week. Lots of people that live above us in the Symphony House, and I've got some regulars that know me from working with Vetri. Kevin still has regulars who have been eating with him since his time at The Ritz, and our bartenders have their people, as well.
You know, even though we've been open just about a year, there are still people who haven't heard of us or know we're open. Hopefully that changes soon (laughs).
Who are VIPs at Sbraga? Well, our regulars, and chefs and industry people. It's very important for us to make our colleagues happy. Impressing people that do this for a living is a good feeling.
What's the weirdest request you've ever gotten from a guest? I think you guys wrote about it. We got a reservation request for someone who was vegetarian that ate fish. Usually our weird requests are all food or diet related.
What celebrities come to Sbraga? Since Kevin was on Top Chef, that's who we see the most of. Mike Isabella was just here, and Angelo Sosa. Oh, and Carla Hall, who is now on The Chew, too.
What are the most challenging aspects of running a restaurant with a celebrity TV chef? Well, just when he's not there and guests come to see him. But, Kevin cooks on the line five nights a week, and sometimes six. It doesn't happen often, as he has family stuff and sometimes has to do charity events. So, it breaks my heart, but what can you do?
You spent time in the Vetri organization which is considered one of the best service-oriented restaurant groups in the country. Even though you went to work for Vetri after ten years in the business, did you learn something new? Oh, absolutely I did. I was in the business for ten years, but he and Jeff Benjamin taught me how to run a restaurant, and how to open a restaurant, which was the toughest thing I've ever had to do. Marc Vetri doesn't teach people how to cook, he teaches them how to succeed. Look at that family tree of restaurateurs that spent time there. Mike Solomonov, Joey Baldino, Jeff Michaud, and Brad Spence, just to name a few. Some of the absolute best.
Did the Esquire accolade bring new business in immediately? Not too much, but it definitely gave us something to live up to and maintain, which is always good. And, I think the best is yet to come. I am proud of Kevin's success, but the team truly made that happen. Kevin and Jose Adorno have a great staff back there. It'll bring in more locals which will get the word out even more.
While most of the local critics love Sbraga, LaBan gave it two bells. Did the Esquire award validate or at least soften that blow a little? Well, we're just about at the end of our first year. There were things that needed to be fixed when LaBan was here, and they got fixed. I don't think anyone needed validation, most of his criticism was about service and not the food. So, Kevin asked if I was up to the challenge, and here we are.
How is Restaurant Week treating you? Actually we don't do Restaurant Week, and that makes us busier. There is definitely a large group of regular diners who avoid Restaurant Week, and they know we don't participate, so they come here.
What's the next big step at the restaurant? We're always evolving. But, honestly, it's a great time to be with Kevin, and with the Sbraga team. I really feel like it's the first year at Vetri or Amada, when there was just so much potential. I think that's where Kevin is right now.
That's probably the biggest praise you could ever give Kevin, comparing him to those guys. So, can you expand on that thought about the next step of the restaurant? Basically, we're in the entertainment business. People give us two hours to put on a show for them. I want to make sure that your dinner at Sbraga is in the top 100 meals of your life. The average person in their mid 60s has eaten 72,000 meals, and being in the top 100 is no joke. That's what we shoot for, and what Sbraga needs to be.