"Restauranteuring can be considered an art field, and the way I do it is very artful and creative."
Named "Pioneer of the Year" by the Nation's Restaurant News in 2002, Alan Stillman is a man whose name is synonymous with innovation in the restaurant world for the last three decades. In 1965, he started T.G.I. Friday's, which he sold in 1976. A year later, with fellow Bucknellians Ben Benson '52 and Ernie Kalman '56, he started Smith & Wollensky, a high-end steakhouse designed to take fine dining public. He also is credited with being an early champion of California wines by featuring them on the steakhouse's award-winning wine list when they were largely unknown.
A native New Yorker, Stillman didn't start off life as a gourmand. In fact, he wanted to be a singer and attended a high school for music and art in Manhattan. "But my voice changed," he says, "and they threw me out." Even so, he says that his art background was helpful.
"Restauranteuring can be considered an art field," he says, "and the way I do it is artful and creative." He majored in finance and says that small-town life at Bucknell "put a stamp on me that you have to start small and work your way up."
Stillman was active in ROTC during his college days and served as a commissioned officer. He then spent two years in Germany. "I was 21, had weekends off, and 30 days of vacation. I didn't intend to learn about food and culture, but there I was. It was pure luck."
And the luck continues.
In a post-September 11 world, tourism has not completely returned to New York City, and many restaurants were forced to close. Stillman says, "It's the worse recession since 1929." Even so, the Smith & Wollensky restaurant group (http://www.smithandwollensky.com/) has not only managed to stay alive but thrive. The group has 16 restaurants nationwide, including a new one in Boston located in a restored 1891 castle that was formerly the Armory of the First Corps of Cadets.
When asked who Smith and Wollensky are, Stillman explains that he and Ben Benson were looking for a name for their new venture and flipped open a phone book. The first name was Smith. "It was such a bad name that we couldn't do that," says Stillman. The second try with the phone book came up with Wollensky. Having sampled quite a few spirits themselves, the men called it a night and went home. The next day, Stillman was struck with the catchy juxtaposition of Smith & Wollensky. He says, "It was pure luck."
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