The One Who Keeps the Book Chicago
The Trick to Getting into Obélix — And What to Eat Once You’re There
Since opening last May, Obélix has taken Chicago by storm. What quietly debuted as a French bistro with a modern twist quickly became one of the hottest restaurants in the city. Brothers Oliver and Nicolas Poilevey opened the restaurant in much of the same fashion as their parents’ beloved Bucktown spot Le Bouchon, which has operated for three decades. The idea was to create a cozy destination for neighborhood locals, but the buzz grew fast, and the newly-James Beard Award nominated Obélix now one of the hardest reservations to snag in Chicago.
The bright space with a modern brasserie aesthetic features diamond-shaped painted concrete floors, vintage lights from a shuttered Parisian hotel, and custom millwork between the bar and dining room. Both of those areas usually overflow with convivial energy, as guests sip Champagne or martinis, slurp oysters on the half shell, and dig in to a whole lot of duck. This all adds up to a great night out — if you can get in.
Which brings us to why we’re here. You’re reading The One Who Keeps The Book, our regular series aiming to answer the most important of questions: How do I get in? The first answer is Resy, of course. But every restaurant manages its tables differently and there are always tips, tricks, and shortcuts to be discovered, straight from the source.
In the case of Obélix, that’d be general manager Jack Sonin, who reveals the ins and outs of scoring a great table, whether you book in advance or try your luck as a walk-in.
When do reservations drop for Obélix?
Jack Sonin: We release in blocks every month, which works best for us. People call the restaurant quite a bit for advance reservations, too. I’m right now fielding a lot of calls for May. We can take those reservations, but to be able to plan for private events, it’s better for us to drop them all at once for a few months out. It’s now two months ahead.
How many seats are at Obélix? And is there a patio coming this summer?
Sonin: There will not be a patio coming at Obélix – that’s a strict no for us based on the building. We have 11 seats at the bar and on a given night we can push the dining room to fit 70.
How many covers do you do on an average night — and also your busiest nights?
Sonin: Brunch can be interesting; on Sunday we did almost 145 covers in the span of four hours from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. On a normal dinner service we can expect to take in around 160 to 170-ish, and that’s if we do a good job of keeping track of the bar, which is walk-in only and first come first served. We can probably max out the restaurant just over 200 covers every night if we were really pushing it and if the bar is full the whole night. It’s fun to get creative and encourage people to move along at the pace that’s better for us so we can get that extra half turn out of the tables.
How quickly do prime-time tables get snatched up?
Sonin: I was hosting on Saturday so I spent a lot of time looking at the books and taking phone calls. Our clientele is varied: a lot of 65 plus, but a lot are in their 20s and 30s. It’s funny for us. Prime time is two fold. 5 p.m. is good for the older folks and 7 p.m. for the younger. Four tops book up seven to eight weeks out for Fridays and Saturdays. Even past that for as long as we have reservations open is pretty tight. We drop reservations often and add them back pretty often. It’s an endless cycle of things. I would expect through the week after the reservations drop, like March 1, by March 8 most of the prime time reservations in May are gone.
Are there certain days or times when there’s a better chance to score a prime-time reservation?
Sonin: We’re busy all the time. Sometimes it’s a crapshoot, but Mondays are always good for off days. Sundays are hit or miss because there’s a lot of obligation dining. I don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason for what day is better to secure a prime time table.
What are the biggest or busiest nights?
Sonin: They’re all pretty busy. Our kitchen closes at different times each night. The days we’re open longer – Friday and Saturday nights, which are the more celebration nights, we squeeze in the most tables we can. Sunday feels like Saturday except shorter. It’s like a baby Saturday for us. For example, last Sunday we started at 5 p.m. with 23 reservations locked in right at 5, and the bar was full by 5:15 and everybody did food. When you start your Sunday night like that, it still feels like you’re hitting the ground running.
How long is the usual Resy Notify list?
Sonin: One of my favorite stats was on Valentine’s Day. We had like 130 different parties waiting to be notified. On a regular night it’s pretty normal to have between 20 and 30 on the waitlist.
Are seats held for walk-ins?
Sonin: We book out the whole dining room for reservations. We want to welcome walk-ins, but where we’re located we just don’t get as much foot traffic. But the bar is first come first served and open seating with full service. We have two bartenders, John and Chris, who have their base of regulars who come in. The bar is very much a party. John has been working for Oliver and Nicolas for seven or eight years and he creates his own thing back there.
How long is the wait-list for walk-ins?
Sonin: My phrasing is always, “The dining room looks fully committed for the evening.” At the bar we do have 11 seats and I tell people that bar seating is open and there’s a drink rail you can lean against, where people who are waiting for their table often stand. But if you want to get a seat at the bar, John does a great job of tracking who’s come in to the bar first. I’m still not sure how he does it, but it’s crazy how his head works. He’s great at getting people seats who come in first.
What’s the best time for a walk-in to come by to get seated promptly?
Sonin: The bar has a pattern. Most nights it’s full by 5:45 p.m., if not earlier. If people are coming in to grab two seats at the bar around 6:30 I’ll tell them the bar should start cycling out and John will know them if they order a drink. The bar does cycle in and out pretty frequently. There’s a much better chance than you think but 5:00 gives you the best chance of walking in and sitting down.
Any do’s and don’ts for guests trying to get in?
Sonin: “Do’s” are being open to an abbreviated dining experience, like I can give you this table because we had a no-show and I need it back in an hour and half. And being polite really works. Don’t be demanding. Obélix is an incredibly busy restaurant and we will get cancellations or no shows, so walking in and being open and receptive and when a guest understands we’re trying to help them versus expecting to be helped, that works. One of the worst things you can do walking in is saying “I saw online you have this table open” and I say “did you make the reservation?” Those tables can disappear in seconds.
What about lunch? Is this the secret time to get in and experience Obélix?
Sonin: At brunch, the bar is always pretty open. On Saturdays and Sundays our turn times are shorter, but the restaurant stays busy. We’re open for Monday brunch and it’s meant to be industry time. We do half-priced sparkling wine, from crémants to Champagne. Even if we had a $1,500 bottle it would be $750. We usually sit at 40 to 50 covers on a Monday and it’s the best time to sneak in, take an early or late lunch. But always buy champagne on Mondays. That’s one of the best wine deals in the city.
If I’m flying solo, how likely is it for me to pull up to the bar (without a reservation) and order a glass of white burgundy and a half-dozen oysters?
Sonin: Pretty likely. Depending on the way people seat themselves, there are usually errant solo seats at the bar. If you walk in by yourself we can cycle you in pretty quickly; even with the drink rail you can do that there, too. We don’t recommend people do a full dinner there, but to do a snack or two? Absolutely.
What would you say is the best seat in the house? Can someone request that specific table, or their favorite table?
Sonin: We take table requests all the time and people have different favorite tables. We have three larger round tables for parties, two that fit six comfortably and one you can fit eight. That 8-top on a busy Friday or Saturday night and you’re sharing a bunch of food, that’s the best table in the house for sure. If someone requests a quiet table, that’s next to the service station, which is counterintuitive. It’s the quietest and least trafficked table in the restaurant. We pack the other tables in at Obélix.
The cuisine at Obélix is described as traditional French and a modern French bistro. How often does chef Oliver Poilevey change the menu, and what are some dishes guests can expect to see?
Sonin: The menu changes constantly. It really depends on what they get in that day. We have plenty of staples: steak tartare, onion soup, foie gras macarons, consommé, etc. You’ll see a lot of the main parts of the dish stay the same – so the duck breast, a fish dish, but the sets will change with the seasons. The Wellington will never leave the menu; that’s a hard staple for us. There will always be steak frites and escargot. We have a specials card that’s incredibly full right now. We just got muscat grapes and they put it with a blue cheese espuma, frisée and that’s a special that will run for a few weeks. We always put tête de cochon. That’s a very traditional French dish, but we serve it with shiso leaves on the side.
Friends and I snagged a key 4-top on a Saturday night before hitting the bars. What should we absolutely not miss from the menu and bar?
Sonin: When people think of a raw bar or seafood tower, they might think of a larger steakhouse, but Obélix does that part of our menu really well. The poisson cru, which is scallops right now; and the shrimp cocktail, since they’re changing up the cocktail sauce. I always recommend the steak tartare; it’s a lighter and more refreshing version. The salad Lyonnaise is up there as well— it has some of the crispiest duck confit ever, it’s crackly and sharp and kind of hurts, but in the best possible way.
What are some of the staff favorites — and are there any “secret” menu items?
Sonin: One of my favorite moves right now is if we have a table and they may not be feeling dessert, if someone has steak frites or Wellington, which comes with fries, I convince people to get a scoop of chocolate ice cream to finish those fries. It’s more of a secret experience than an item per se. And we can do a lot of our seafood tower stuff a la carte—the premium items like king crab, razor clams, or mussels. It’s not listed on the menu but you can get them.
Speaking of prime time on the weekend, set the scene. What’s going on at Obélix and what’s the vibe like?
Sonin: Super buzzy for sure. It gets loud in there. It’s one of the louder dining rooms I’ve worked in. It’s part of our style of service. We want our servers to be themselves and give our guests their best experience. It’s like being at a big dinner party but with six tables around you instead of being at one. The bar can be three deep sometimes; people at the drink rail, people at the bar, and people in between those. You have to show up and be intentional with your movements, because things move quickly.
Ari Bendersky, a lifestyle journalist specializing in food, wine, spirits, and travel, has written for New York Times, WSJ magazine, Eater, Men’s Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Departures, RollingStone.com, and more. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.