Welcome to our 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.
In the five months it's been open, The Optimist has quickly become a go-to spot for everyone from trendsetters to those who just enjoy a good meal— and Esquire just named it the best new restaurant of the year. With Ford Fry behind the concept, Adam Evans in kitchen, and mini golf out front, there's no doubt this seafood spot will be successful for years to come. Here, we talk to the woman who keeps it running smoothly, General Manager Kimberly Powell.
What's your background? Where have you worked in Atlanta?
I am originally from Atlanta and started working in restaurants at the age of 17 as a host at the Houston's on West Paces. I worked for Houston's for 10 years, moving around the country, eventually managing the opening of a barbecue joint in Philly, and then running a historic tavern in Georgetown in D.C. After all of that, I was connected with Todd Rushing of Concentrics Restaurant Group and came home, finally, to work at TWO Urban Licks, then Parish and Tap. I was with Concentrics for a little over four years when I was offered the opportunity to come work with Ford, Drew Belline, and the crew who opened No. 246. I found that I love opening restaurants, so here I am a little over a year later at The Optimist, just past my second opening with this talented group of professionals.
What's it like working with a celebrity chef like Ford Fry? What kind of weird things do people do to try to get close to him?
Ford is no-fuss: all about great food, making guests happy, and getting things done the right way. He likes talking to people and is often in the restaurant, so people don't really have to try very hard to get close to him. So far, I haven't encountered any crazy stalkers or anything along those lines, but we'll see what the future holds!
What's your favorite thing on the current menu?
Our menu changes daily based on the best fresh catch we are able to source, so my favorite menu item is constantly evolving. Yesterday, my favorite was the triggerfish with corn succotash and marinated tomatoes, but I just tasted the monkfish braised with tomatoes—I have a new favorite now!
It's 8 p.m. Saturday, can you walk in and get a table? If not, what's the wait?
There is always a chance you can walk in at any time and get a table, but Saturdays are our busiest evening. For parties of two, the wait is often quite reasonable. For anything more than two, the wait is generally a bit longer. If a guest prefers not to wait for a table, we do have walk-in seating in both the Oyster Bar and at the main bar in the dining room. We offer full service at the dining room bar and an extensive raw bar selection and menu of delicious small plates in our Oyster Bar. The style of service in the Oyster Bar is much more casual and laid back than the dining room—a fun place to hang out on either a weekend or weekday night, and more often than not, it's not difficult to find a place to sit—even at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.
Do people ever try to slip you cash or anything for tables?
We have had guests try, but we seat guests according to their reservation time, in the order of their arrival. We do not compromise on this for any amount of money.
Do you have regulars, and what are they like?
We have the most amazing regulars! They are an eclectic bunch—to generalize what they are like would be impossible. Our regulars have taken a sincere interest in helping to create the atmosphere of The Optimist and in helping to improve what we do every day. They make an effort to tell us when things aren't quite right and to bring us first time visitors whenever they have the opportunity. They are our best form of advertisement and feedback, and my favorite part of each day.
You were giving out keys to The Optimist when it first opened. Are they all gone now? Do people ever try to use them?
We still have keys. Our first batch is almost gone, but we have more on the way. We hang them on peg boards in the hallway that leads to the restrooms for guests to take as souvenirs. I did see a gentleman trying to use one to open a restroom door the other day—he was quite confused since the doors don't have key holes.
How does the mini golf out front work? Is there a line? Do people try to steal the balls or clubs? Do you think it detracts from bar purchases since it provides another option for entertainment while waiting?
Our mini golf is on a first come, first served basis. For the most part, it seems that guests wander in and out of games at a leisurely pace—I've never really seen anyone waiting in line. We have the same number of clubs we had when we opened. It seems that our guests are very respectful of the mini golf.
We have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that many of our participants are children. It's a great activity for kids who are past the age when coloring on their menus is entertaining. We find that having a way for children to entertain themselves enables parents to relax while enjoying a lovely dinner and good company.
For our more mature golfers, we do have cocktail service on the mini golf green; guests often enjoy a glass of wine or a beer while they are demonstrating their putting skills—if anything, it helps us inspire repeat guests, which is much more valuable to us than beverage sales on any given day.
Do you get a lot of celebrities coming here? Anyone in particular that you remember?
We have hosted several celebrity guests, both local and national. We try not to fuss over our celebrity guests any more so than we do the guests who visit us every day.
What happens if the restaurant is packed and a VIP comes in?
Our guests are the most important part of what we do, so we do our best to treat every guest as a VIP. Our owners feel the same way. Even Ford calls to make a reservation if he is coming in so that we are never in a position to compromise a guest's experience by offering anyone preferential treatment.
What's the strangest request you've ever received from a customer?
We've only been open for a few months, so no one has made a really crazy request of me at this restaurant yet. But to be quite honest, requests are fun. The crazier the request, the more entertaining it is to see how close we can get to giving the guest what they want. I once had a man stop by the restaurant in the afternoon to ask me if we would be willing to play a specific playlist he had created over our sound system while he was dining with us. Since most of the music didn't fit the mood of the restaurant, we didn't do that, but I did incorporate a couple of key songs he wanted to play throughout the course of the evening in hopes of helping create the experience he was hoping for. He was very appreciative.
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
I hesitate to call them a "tool," but the link that would cripple us if it was missing is our staff. We have an incredibly caring, kind and gracious team. Without a whole group of people who honestly care about giving our guests the best service and doing our best to be less like "gatekeepers" and more like "agents," in the words of Danny Meyer, we would not be where we are.