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.
Brian Kane is one of the managers of Zahav (along with Eilon Gigi), and the man behind the brilliant wine list that pairs so well with Chef Michael Solomonov's Israeli cuisine. Kane has been with Zahav for the past two years, and is an integral part of one of the biggest culinary success stories in Philly's history. Eater chatted up Kane about the secrets to getting a table, unusual guest requests, and the evolution of a 4-Bell restaurant with a Beard Award-winning chef.
It's Saturday night at 8:00 P.M. What's the wait for a table? About an hour. Maybe a little less, maybe a little more. But we'll seat you in an hour.
Do you accept walk-ins? Most of our diners have reservations. But, we do take walk-ins. You're always going to have no-shows and cancellations, and last-minute mind changers. Also, we keep a couple of the high-tops in the corner just for walk-ins. It's not an impossible situation. If you don't mind eating at the bar, that's always available to walk-ins.
Tables can be tough to get on the weekend. Any tips for people trying to score a reservation? Be kind to the person on the phone, and they'll help you out. Have flexibility with your time window. And parties with less than 5 people are easier to seat. Everyone wants to eat from 6:45 until 8:30, but if you can come a little earlier or a little later, that will help. Also, in summertime, the restaurant has a lot more availability.
What's the weirdest request you've ever gotten from a guest? Hmmm. We get a lot. The most bizarre had to be this woman who told us ahead of time she was sensitive to noise, so we needed to turn down the music. And then she said only one person could talk to her from our staff, and they needed to be quiet when speaking.
Does Chef Solomonov ever get odd menu requests? No, not really. The only one we got was the person who said they wanted to come back and work in the kitchen and have Mike teach them to make Israeli food.
Chef is known for his amazing hummus, do people ever ask for a container to go? They do, but we don't do that. No food to go, we need to focus on who is in the restaurant.
Not even for VIPs? Who are VIPs at Zahav? Our regulars. We have some people who have been coming here since the beginning. And those are our VIPs.
What benefits do the VIPs get? Extra menu items, or stuff from off the menu. Chef will send dishes out to them. Sometimes we'll bring out dishes we're working on or cocktails that are in development.
Are there any off-the-menu items Chef Solomonov makes? Yeah, he has a few he whips up now and again. Depending on the guest, and the timing, he will make some special dishes for people.
What's the most popular dish, besides the hummus? The fried cauliflower is still the favorite. And we move a lot of the lamb shoulder, as well. Those are the only two menu items that have stood the test of time, almost since the beginning.
Any celebrities come here? We get athletes in here on the road. A lot of the Chicago Bulls came here, while they were losing to the Sixers during the last round of the playoffs. Lots of celebrity chefs come in here, too.
Rumor has it M. Night Shyamalan is a fan. Is that true? Yeah, he is.
Zahav has gone through evolution into the restaurant it is today. What would you say have been the biggest changes? The service was a focus, and we've really tightened it up. It's in a great place now. The kitchen has been revamped, so chef has a lot more new fun tools to mess around with back there.
Chef Solomonov recently won a Beard Award, and Zahav got the elusive 4-Bell rating from critic Craig LaBan. How has that changed the environment? It hasn't changed anything other than we have more to live up to. More expectations to live up to. We're seeing people come from further away to just eat here. The national exposure makes us a destination restaurant.
You're a sommelier, so is the new wine program your focus? Since that is my specialty, that's a part of it. I love what we do here, and I believe we have one of if not the deepest Israeli wine list in the U.S. People don't know how good the wine is, and it covers a lot of ground. They're surprised how good the late harvest Gewurtztraminers are, and the Sauvignon Blancs, and the Viognier. Israeli wine covers a lot of ground that people just don't know. Also, I like to fill in the gaps with other odd varietals or odd regions. Ultimately, the wine has to be right for the menu.