Welcome to our newest feature, The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tables.
Andres Loaiza. [Photo courtesy of George Sanchez]
If you have ever dined at chef Gerry Klaskala's Aria, you are well acquainted with Andres Loaiza, who mans the front of the house. Loaiza is one of those General Managers who can't help but make you feel at home in that effortless way. He's a natural and it's no wonder he has worked at Aria for as long as he has. Despite being one of our city's best establishments, the restaurant would be sorely lacking without him.
What's your background? Where have you worked in Atlanta?
I arrived in Atlanta 12 years ago with an engineering degree and no engineering job. I took a position waiting tables at The Corner Café and once I was in the dining room, it felt like I was becoming a part of something which I was meant to do. I wanted to help create the magic that happens when you connect with your guests and they leave with a big smile, when they feel that YOU took care of them. I wanted to learn more about food, and then . . . I discovered wine! The history, the romance, the taste and the smell, the color; all senses coming together into this seemingly unassuming liquid. Incredible! After The Corner Café and Kyma, I had the opportunity to join the opening team of Mitra, later when Susan Steinberg of the The Epicurean decided to open a French-inspired restaurant adjacent to her wine shop, I jumped to the opportunity of working with her.
So how long have you been working at Aria?
Four wonderful years
What brought you to Aria?
I had met Gerry Klaskala at a couple of events around town and I was extremely curious about his vision about food, friends, hospitality and the memories built around them. When we finally sat down and talked about how all those things come together at ARIA and the vision he had going forward, I knew it would be a fantastic match.
What's your favorite table in the restaurant?
One of the great things of ARIA is that one can experience it in many different ways- for a business meeting with private conversation a corner table by the window or on the upper level can be great, for a night out with friends, a table in the main dining room allows you to be part of the energy of the room, and for a romantic evening with your better half, a booth or our table in the wine cellar are unmatched. We try to pay attention to those little things and give you the best table we possibly can for that particular night out.
What's your favorite thing on the current menu?
I love the fact that Gerry and Kathryn change our menus daily, and while they give us ARIA classics like the lobster cocktail and the warm chocolate cheesecake, our menus also reflect the season. I love Gerry’s honey spiced breast of duck with slow braised cabbage, turnips and saffron apples; and Kathryn’s Red Bartlett pear and brioche pudding with ginger ice cream. On a recent wine dinner, which I believe are the times when you can see Gerry’s most playful side, we paired Cabernet Sauvignon with an oak grilled Carolina quail with bok choy, lobster mushrooms, ginger and cashews. It was delicious.
It's 8 p.m. Saturday, can you walk in and get a table? If not, what's the wait?
There are always last minute cancellations and changes so it is really hard to say; the wait might be 15 minutes or it might be one hour for a table in the dining room without reservations. What we do is try to keep open seats at the bar and the lounge where you can make yourself at home, and start with a drink or an appetizer. We always try to be accurate and honest when quoting wait times, and try our best to accommodate everyone that has chosen to dine with us.
Do people ever try to slip you cash or anything for tables? Has it happened to you — ever — not necessarily at Aria?
It has happened maybe twice, but that really isn’t the way it works?Trust me, if I have a table, I will give it to you! Nothing makes me happier than a dining room that is full of people having a grand time. Our staff engaging with our guests, a parade of courses coming out of the kitchen, corks popping, the sound of ice breaking in a cocktail shaker? you get the idea? We want you at our party!
Do you have regulars, and what are they like?
We have many, many regulars and friends who have dined at Aria over our eleven years; a great many have dined with us more than one hundred times, some started dining with Gerry in restaurants in which he cooked, well before Aria opened. Gerry Groupies, as I like to call them. In many ways, our regulars feel like family and close friends to us. ”Mike and Marta are here! We have not seen them since baby Max was born, they look so happy!”? that sort of thing.
Do you get a lot of celebrities coming here at all? Anyone in particular that you remember?
We do have many celebrities dine with us. We make an effort to provide a relaxed, comfortable setting for them, offering the same level of service as we do to all of our guests (with a little added privacy when requested). I particularly have great memories of visits from Katherine Heigl, Scarlett Johansen, Ryan Reynolds, Condoleeza Rice, Cloris Leachman, Janet Jackson, Jewel, Elton John and Jimmy Buffett, but there are many more. It is a fun and long list.
What happens if the restaurant is packed and a VIP comes in?
Fortunately, our VIP’s and regulars know that our busier evenings can often involve a bit of waiting without a reservation. They are usually patient and understanding, opting to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine in our lounge while a table is readied.
What's the strangest request you've ever received from a customer?
We had an out-of-town diner once who provided (at the time of making his reservation) a time-table for his dining experience. Something like this:
Arrival - 7:02
Cocktails - 7:05 to 7:28
Dinner menus to be presented - 7:37
Order to be taken - 7:58???.It went on and on until time of departure.
Incidentally, this guest had a fantastic experience with us, sadly though, we finished 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
A glass of wine to calm my nerves! No- Seriously, the one tool I need, is the best tool I have: the great team of ARIA. I am very fortunate to be supported by an amazingly-talented team in the kitchen and the dining room. We are all focused on one goal: creating long lasting memories around great food and wine, in the company of old and new friends.
· Aria Atlanta [Official Site]