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.
It's hard to miss Neal McCarthy, General Manager at Miller Union. His tall frame and dazzling smile can be seen most any night expertly making his rounds in the packed house of regulars at the Westside mainstay. McCarthy, who also owns a part of the restaurant with chef Steven Satterfield, hails from Britain and made a name for himself as the general manager of local favorites Fritti and Sotto before striking out on his own. Eater Atlanta spoke with McCarthy to find out what makes him tick.
What's your background? Where have you worked in Atlanta?
My background in managing the back of the house paired with my love for the front of the house allows me to serve our guests exceptional meals in a warm, welcoming environment. I really strive to please every guest and make our staff happy and proud of the food they serve.
Prior to opening Miller Union, I dedicated 10 years as general manager at Fritti and Sotto Sotto. Before moving to Atlanta, I was a waiter and bartender in Charleston, S.C., after transplanting south from Philadelphia. I began cooking myself when I was 13 years old; it was an interest I developed during my childhood in South London. I grew up spending hours in the kitchen watching my mother prepare dishes from classic French cookbooks for dinner parties.
So how long have you been working at Miller Union?
I've been working as general manger since the restaurant's grand opening on November 10, 2009.
What brought you to Miller Union?
Chef Steven Satterfield and I had been talking about opening a restaurant for about five years previous to Miller Union; we finally were at a point in our careers where we were willing to take the plunge.
What's your favorite table in the restaurant?
My favorite table is a table with people at it! As far as a specific table, I'd choose number 64 located in the library room because the table offers a view of the entire restaurant and guests sitting there can see the most action.
What's your favorite thing on the current menu?
The braised lamb shank from Border Springs farm in Virginia served with winter greens and white beans.
It's 8 p.m. Saturday, can you walk in and get a table? If not, what's the wait?
We are always full on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. I try to accommodate walk-ins as much as I can. A restaurant is a living, breathing entity, so things can change quickly. On average, though, I'd expect to wait an hour. You can always snack on something at the bar and chat up our barkeep Stuart White while you are waiting.
Do people ever try to slip you cash or anything for tables?
It's a very rare occurrence, and that money would be better suited for our hostesses than myself.
Has it happened to you? Not necessarily at Miller Union?
It was more common at Sotto Sotto, where I wasn't an owner.
Do you have regulars, and what are they like?
Our restaurant is built on regulars, as they are the people who keep our lights on. Our regulars are all different, but each and every one of them is great in their own way. In general, they are people who care about our philosophy, who befriend our employees and who are loyal and thoughtful. I delight in getting to know our regulars' specific likes and dislikes and catering to them.
Do you get a lot of celebrities coming here at all?
We've had our fair share of celebrities.
Anyone in particular that you remember?
We've hosted Cameron Diaz, Bob Costas, Salman Rushdie, Marisa Tomei, Malcolm Gladwell, Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Bateman and Ed Helms, to name a few.
What happens if the restaurant is packed and a VIP comes in?
If a VIP comes in, you always try to accommodate them. I don't believe, however, that it should be at the expense of a guest currently waiting for a table. You never know who will become your next VIP.
What's the most strangest request you've ever received from a customer?
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
A good collection of relevant stories for the right moment.
[Photo credit: David Naugle]
For more Gatekeepers published today from across the Eater Universe, head over to Eater National.