For Bill Meyer of Restaurant Nicholas,
serving food is a vocation
“I quickly found out that
being on the floor, front of the house,
is like being in showbiz.”
BY PAT TANNER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CIE STROUD
Bill Meyer has been waiting a very long time.
“I love that every day is a little bit different,” says Meyer, who started busing tables as a teenager and is now a dining room captain at the nationally acclaimed Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. “And I love restaurant people; they’re a special breed.” Over a career spanning fi ve decades, he’s experienced it all, from serving regulars like Frank Sinatra and Phil Rizzuto to having a knife held to his throat during one memorable lunch shift.
Meyer grew up in North Bergen and started working at the age of 11, making deliveries for a local drugstore. He fi rst felt drawn to the restaurant business at 18, when he was a full-time student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. At the time, he held four part-time jobs to pay for school, including one as a busboy at a Jersey City restaurant where the chef was Joseph “Sonny D” DeCrescenzi, who would later serve as personal chef to Frank Sinatra. Back then Meyer had an uncle who headed up the banquet department at The Manor in West Orange.
“My uncle sat me down and said, ‘Billy, you’re killing yourself. I could put you to work on a couple of parties on weekends and you’d make much more money.’ Well, I quickly found out that being on the fl oor, front of the house, is like being in showbiz. I was enthralled by the show. And it did pay well. I was 18 and making $800 a week—that was a lot of money in 1973!”
Meyer was soon working at The Manor full-time. Then, after receiving his college degree, he went to work for the Hiltons, rising through the ranks and training at key properties throughout the United States. By this point Meyer had a wife and two daughters, and the long workweeks were not always easy. “Over the years I’ve missed family weddings, parties—that’s the thing you give up in this business. But I’ve always had that German work ethic: job fi rst, everything else next.”
It was at The Manor, where he worked from ’73 to ’78, that Meyer came to see his work as not just a living but a profession. “After banquets, I went to à la carte, which was very prestigious. Back then the people I worked with were Germans, Italians and South Americans who had worked on cruise ships. This was an honored profession with demanding standards—and it’s still held in high regard in Europe,” he says. “These people were serious about their jobs!”
And so is Meyer. Nicholas Harary, the chef-owner of Restaurant Nicholas, shared an example of Meyer’s dedication in a recent newsletter. “Bill goes out of his way to do the right thing, all the time,” he writes. “He doesn’t do it for the atta-boy; he does it because it’s right.” Harary relates the story of how Meyer delivered a guest’s forgotten leftovers to his home, driving 30 minutes out of his way. The only reason Harary came to know of the incident was because he overheard some of the younger staff giving Meyer a hard time. “It never occurred to Bill to tell me. He just did it because it was the right thing to do.”
“I’ve always had that German work ethic: job first, everything else next.”
After leaving The Manor and working some freelance jobs, Meyer decided he wanted to learn to cook. “I wanted to be as well-rounded as I could. So I tracked down chef Sonny D at The Archers in Fort Lee. I walked into the kitchen and after some begging and pleading, he told me to come in at 5:30 the next morning. He started me on the basics. It was just like going to school, beginning with knife skills— chop, slice and dice—and how to use the kitchen equipment.”
Eventually, Meyer had made the rounds at all the stations. “After I was there nine months, Sonny D told me he was opening his own restaurant and asked me to come along as a waiter,” Meyer recalls. Sonny D’s opened in Secaucus in 1981. “It was there that I got to meet Mr. Sinatra,” he says. “Sonny’s and Sinatra’s mothers were best friends. If Sinatra was in the area, he’d call and say ‘I’m coming over. I’ll park in the lot until everyone’s gone.’ Then he’d come in with his entourage. Sonny would keep a few key people on and I was always one of them. Sinatra was just a very nice, polite, soft-spoken gentleman. He had an air about him, though, that always made him stand out. He was generous to everybody.”
Bill Meyer first waited on Phil Rizzuto back in his Manor days, but it wasn’t until years later, when Meyer was working at Casa Dante in Jersey City, that the Yankee legend became a regular customer. “I was there just a few weeks when he sat at a table in my station. He took a liking to me—maybe because I wasn’t pushy, maybe because I told him how great I thought he was. He was one of the nicest celebrities. He’d be lifting a forkful of food up to his mouth and if a fan came by and asked for an autograph, he’d just stop and put down his fork. It used to kill his wife! The 50, 60 times I waited on him I never once saw him say no.” Apparently, the admiration was mutual. As a Yankee commentator for WPIX, Rizzuto announced over the air the births of both of Meyer’s daughters, who are now 23 and 21. Asked to recall the craziest experience he’s had as a waiter, Meyer says, “There was that time at Sonny D’s when a knife was held to my throat. It was because the service was not fast enough. You know, I’ve come across more than a few wiseguys in my time. Some of them, when they want to eat, they want to eat! It was at lunchtime. A regular customer wasn’t getting fed fast enough. I’m begging the kitchen to get the food out. This guy follows me to the kitchen and puts a knife to my throat and says, ‘Billy, if I have to wait any longer I’m not responsible for what’s gonna happen.’ I say, ‘Bobby, OK, I promise you!’ Well, he got his food, left a big tip, and went on his way. And came back in a few days.”
Nothing like that happens at Nicholas, where Meyer has amassed what he modestly calls “a nice little following” among customers. He admits that at times younger staff members can try his patience. “Mostly because I take my job seriously,” he explains. “You know, you can’t blame them. I was young once, I remember what that’s like. But this is not the place to not take your job seriously. We have a nice group of people and we go out together at night. But I don’t think they expect to stay in this as a career. Most people nowadays don’t think in those terms. But you know, the things that I fell in love with—they’re still there.”
As Nicholas Harary says, “They broke the mold on Bill a long time ago. He’s as old-school as they come.”
Pat Tanner is a food writer, restaurant reviewer, and blogger (dinewithpat.com) based in Princeton. She is a consulting editor for the Zagat New Jersey restaurant guide and contributes restaurant reviews and features to New Jersey Monthly magazine.