Through Fire and Wine

What could be better than coming to your favorite restaurant, sitting at the bar and tasting a number of new dishes specially prepared by the chef? Or perhaps it could be just going to that same restaurant and meeting friends there. Every restaurateur is glad to have a circle of regular clients who are already old acquaintances. Some try to expand the circle of regulars with the help of marketing promotions such as Internet updates, birthday cakes delivered to the home and parties at clubs, but restaurant owners who like to host will also mention conversations with customers, shared events and holidays and special requests that are met to the last detail.

The customers, for their part, are happy to find an attentive ear to requests and whims, and primarily a place that is essentially an extension of the living room at home. And many times the social connection leads to real support and even a business partnership. Dalia Lugasi of the Tchernihovsky 6 Bistro in Tel Aviv says that "80 percent of our customers are regulars. I no longer take orders by table number, but by names: Michael, Moshe. We already know everyone."

Lugasi and her partner, Eyal Meron, opened the bistro six years ago, "and since then we've raised customers' kids, we cook for them for the holidays." In the afternoon of Hol Hamo'ed (the intermediate days of Passover), Dalia Lugasi talks to just about every customer who gets up from his table: This one switched his diet, this one talks about his child, a third customer moved apartments and still came.

Sitting at the corner table are Keren Bronstein and her mother, Henya Weinberg. "We've been regular customers for almost five years now," says Weinberg. "Keren, my daughter, lived right nearby, and has since moved to Tzur Yigal, but we come back here at least once a week. The people are nice, the food is tasty and the feeling is just like being at home."

Bronstein says that her kids are also regulars at the place, including her baby son who is 7 months old and with her at this time, and her oldest son, who is 4. "When we would pass by and not come in, he would shout: 'Dalia, Dalia, food!'" she says. "But because everyone knows us and there are a lot of kids like him here, it's okay."

It's a matter of character of course. Lugasi is like that: welcoming, happy to come out from behind the pots and talk to visitors, or to send a special dish and consult about a dress she bought. When the chef or owners are unable to fulfill this crucial function, the appropriate choice of a maitre d' or regular waiter can matter a lot.

Assaf Gris, for example, was a maitre d' at the Lehem Erez branch on Tel Aviv's Ibn Gvirol Street and played a large part in maintaining the cafe's attraction as a neighborhood cafe and much-needed meeting place.

"I came to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem to study at the department of film, and I didn't know anyone here," he says. "During my visits to Tel Aviv, the Erez branch on Ibn Gvirol appealed to me because I sensed that customers come every day, and I started recognizing familiar faces. When I started working there, the place did indeed become like a home for me. I got to know the customers, greeted them, and always gave them the feeling that I'd arrange a table for them. We would talk and they really became my friends. They would come and drink a coffee in the morning, and in the evening we'd go out together."

Today Gris no longer works at the cafe, "but most of my friends are still the people who were my customers at Erez. Because I'm very attached to the place, I help them out on holiday eves and at peak times, practically on a volunteer basis. I call it reserve duty. And besides that, I still sit there every morning."

Tell them you're Udi Carmi's brother

After Gris completed his university studies, one of the regular customers helped him find work at a public relations firm. Because, yes, nurturing ties with regular customers can pay off even beyond the flow of diners to a cafe. Ties between chefs and customers have already over the years led to the opening of restaurants.

When chef Eyal Lavi left the Pastice restaurant and wanted to open a new restaurant of his own, it was clear to him whom he would approach: an old customer named Haim Haziza, a businessman involved in high tech. Haziza became his partner in the restaurant, Rokach 73, in Tel Aviv. "The relationship with him was very good, and every time he told me that when I want 'to start a business,' I should contact him. When I left Pastice, I knew who I would call," says Lavi.

In addition to Haziza, Lavi brought with him to the new restaurant an additional group of regular customers, including insurance man Udi Carmi, who has been attached to Lavi and his creations for almost a decade. "I won a prize from the Migdal company for achieving many sales," says Carmi, "and the prize was a meal prepared by a chef in my home for 10 people. Eyal came to cook, we talked, and since then we've been friends. I go to his restaurants (formerly, Pastice, and today, Rokach 73) approximately every two weeks." According to Lavi, "we have a code. Whoever says he is Udi Carmi's brother gets preferential treatment from the chef." This means tastes of new dishes, and glasses of wine between courses and also a handshake from and light conversation with the chef, who comes out to the customers after the meal is served.

But you don't have to know Carmi. "My cellphone number is always accessible to every customer in the restaurant," says Lavi. "That's what it's for. A customer who wants to can reach me at any hour. There are customers who sent friends and want them to feel comfortable, and it's important for them to talk to me. Why not?" And he offers a tip to those who want to become part of the circle of regulars: "When customers, even those who come to eat for the first time, order something unusual, I immediately appreciate it and reward them. I'm constantly asked if a chef can be unfriendly. In my opinion, if he is that way, everyone simply loses out."

They're here for me

Aviv Moshe, a chef at the Masa restaurant in Tel Aviv, benefited. Such a connection, led him, for example, to spontaneously visit the most sought-after restaurant in the world, El Bulli in Montjoi, Spain. "A regular customer booked a table there a year in advance. At the last minute he had to cancel, but offered me the option of taking his place."

Moshe describes the restaurant where he cooks as "a living room that is bigger than the one in my home." According to him, "it's inconceivable to have a situation where the chef does not play the host, doesn't go out to the guests, doesn't talk to them. They want to feel that they are desirable. Today I'm invited to family celebrations, whether or not they want me to cook there. They consult with me about everything related to cooking and food, where to shop, where to eat abroad, and on the other hand, make it clear to me that if I need something, they're here for me."

Shmuel Holland, the former owner of a catering company and today the owner of Shmil Bama'abada, a kosher Jerusalem restaurant, says that "all our catering clients followed me to the restaurant. They always asked me why I don't open a place, and when I decided to close the catering business and really open a restaurant, there was also a proposal from Erel Margalit, who was a regular customer. When customers arrive, I go out to them, answer questions about the food."

Holland is a former historian and specializes in eastern European foods in the various diasporas, so customers' questions receive lengthy answers. "Because I change the menu all the time, and it's a seasonal menu, not everything is available every day. So customers ask me to notify them by phone when I have mushroom soup or borscht, even if they live far away. And that's what we do."

For Yaniv Caspi, it's slightly less simple. Caspi, who specializes in kosher gourmet Israeli food, is now forming a new clientele of his own at the Daka restaurant in Tel Aviv. The restaurant has been open for some five months and Caspi is in a complex position: He developed the menu of the fish restaurant with star chef Haim Cohen. Diners there are still looking for Cohen's fingerprints, but Caspi himself oversees the daily serving and attention to detail.

"Unfortunately, I'm a pretty shy and introverted type, and always prefer the result on the plate to speak for itself. They built a kitchen here for me with a transparent glass wall that is open to the diners, so that I'll be able to see who comes, and it does indeed help. During the first month or two they asked me, 'where's Haim Cohen?' But after they ate at my restaurant, they already understand that I'm here."

He can learn from Rafi Ben Haroush, the manager of Chloely's, a restaurant in Ramat Gan, who competes with chef Victor Gluger over who remembers better the businessmen and politicians who dine at the restaurant. "Although it's hard to beat Victor," acknowledges Ben Haroush, "I have a phenomenal memory. One day a customer showed up with his soldier son, and Victor ran to his library in a room at the restaurant and pulled out a book that the customer gave out to guests at this son's bar mitzvah, with a dedication. It wins over people. Even if the customer doesn't come every week, and not even every month, Victor will remember exactly who he is and what not to include in his dish. And the customers, of course, know how to value this."