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By Megan Dooley
Oak Park's Maya del Sol Restaurant took 200 reservations this past Friday night in the span of about six hours.
It's probable that those diners were out to show support for a much-loved neighborhood restaurant at a critical moment. But it's fair to say some were also aiming for a spot on TV.
Todd Gunderson, director of operations for Maya del Sol, said they were notified earlier this month that the restaurant would be featured on an upcoming episode of the hit WTTW show Check, Please! which features restaurant reviews from a small group of everyday diners. That announcement drove the torrent of early reservations.
"I always find it interesting because it's regular people, regular customers," said Gunderson of the show. "It's not necessarily a food critic or a food writer."
Anan Abu-Taleb, a longtime Oak Parker who owns the restaurant with his wife, said crews spent about six hours at the restaurant Friday night, chatting with customers, photographing food and observing the kitchen. He's unsure when the segment will hit the air, but he called the appearance reaffirming.
"I can't tell you how much joy my wife and I take in the support we received from our customers and the community," he said Monday. "It's nice to see us being validated by Check Please! like that."
The show's premise is this: Three diners pick a favorite restaurant, then all three visit all three eateries. Later, the threesome share their feedback on camera, and the camera crew follows up with visits to each of the restaurants to talk to the owners and capture the food and ambiance on film.
Gunderson said Maya del Sol, 144 S. Oak Park Ave., has been nominated before for a spot on the show, at least three or four times in the last few years, but they've never made it all the way through to the program.
"It's a huge honor," Gunderson said. "It's even a bigger honor because we've been nominated by people in our community, and that means everything to us."
The camera crews filmed from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., starting by interviewing Abu-Taleb. Then they moved on to the kitchen, shooting images of the food preparation itself. Finally, the camera crew made its way into the dining room where they captured the atmosphere, the servers handling the food, the guests chatting at their tables, and staff interacting with the customers.
Everyone with a stake in the restaurant is hoping the reviews by the three Check, Please! participants are positive. There's always the possibility of a thumbs down. But Gunderson said he's confident Maya del Sol left the three guests, who came in to eat anonymously at different times, with a good impression. And he hasn't seen many bad reviews on the show in the past.
"Most of the reviewers, even if they don't like the restaurant, will say something positive. The only negative I've seen is when the person just wasn't a good fit for that restaurant," he said, "a seafood-hating diner who ate at a seafood restaurant, for instance." Gunderson said he's not worried and thinks the restaurant's appearance on the show will likely boost the customer base in the future.
"I think it will give some additional exposure to people who perhaps weren't aware of us," he said. And there will always be a place for faithful patrons who have frequented the restaurant for years, like the one who got them the Check, Please! nomination in the first place.
"The fact that they feel so strongly about us is just a tremendous gift," Gunderson said.
Staff reporter Marty Stempniak contributed to this report.