Bill’s on 54th Street in New York City has only seen four owners in its 92 year history, beginning as a speakeasy during prohibition in the 1924. The latest incarnation of Bill’s is Bill’s Townhouse, a return to upscale, classic American food and drink spearheaded by Curt Huegel, founder of LDV Hospitality and the man responsible for restaurants such as Scarpetta and American Cut. Speaking with Huegel gives one the impression that he is not so much taking over Bill’s as much as he is curating a historical space, one that he sees as essential to New York City. We had a chance to chat with him about everything from the weeknight piano program to Bill’s return to being a “drinking man’s bar”.
What attracted you to the opportunity to take over Bill’s Townhouse?
At 47 years old I am an old New Yorker. I wanted to buy something that has history and is very much about the restaurant and not about a celebrity chef or owner. I’ve been a customer at Bill’s forever so I just wanted to breathe some new life into a place that deserves its place in the New York City restaurant scene.
What did you want to do with Bill’s when you purchased it?
We wanted to go in there and fix things up and touch things up but keep it true to what is has always been. It’s always been a trustworthy place and a pillar of the community. There wasn’t much I wanted to change aesthetically, but we returned to a great cocktail program based on quality spirits and put some more work into the piano program.
We addressed things that needed fixing without me having to put my stamp on it. It is not “Curt’s Bill’s Townhouse”. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to take Bill’s back to what its always been and bring it into its tenth decade in New York City.
Were people nervous that you were going to totally change the restaurant?
I think people were worried we were going to bring in a celebrity chef or do some crazy cocktail program but really my plan for Bill’s became more of what I didn’t do than what I did. And it was easy for me because I loved the building and I’ve always loved Bill’s so I had a pretty quick idea of wanting to keep it very traditional.
It sounds like everything is a return to refined classics. How does that shine through in your cocktail program?
The cocktail program is based on the idea of great quality and approachable drinks made with the right products. We’re not doing a mixology bar because it’s just not right for Bill’s. Bill’s is a drinking man’s bar. It’s a free pour made with quality products. We made sure to put ten quality drinks that resonate with our customers. It’s a place for real people who want a good drink.
What about beer and wine? What is your approach there?
Simple but high quality. we have beers that are craft IPAs but I also put Miller High Life on the menu because it’s a classic bottle of beer that people love to drink.
Does that approach translate into your menu?
Absolutely. We’re going for high quality American classics. Things you don’t see a lot anymore like the Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermidor or Scallop Newburg. These are things you don’t see in a lot of restaurants right now. We have chicken cutlets with brown gravy and people thought that was odd in 2016. But it is one of our best selling items because it is Old School New York City.
Is your wait staff adhering to the Old New York City style of waiting tables, such as a place like Peter Lugers?
That is one place we’ve deviated. That works in some old institutions but I don’t think that style resonates with guests today. The one thing I heard from customers when I went to Bill’s was that there were problems with the service. I had an opportunity to bring in a guy with a blue ribbon approach who really has an appreciation for great service.
Can you talk about the Piano Program at the restaurant?
Six nights a week we have musicians come and play Piano from eight to eleven at night. Instead of forcing people to be there, we give people time to sit at the bar and chat and then later at night we do music. We gave it it’s own space to make it stand on its own as opposed to having it at the same time as when the bar is crowded. I don’t think many restaurants in the City have a piano player but I have two, Bill’s Townhouse and Campagnola. Its a completely different vibe then any other place and it has been tremendously successful.
Thank you Curt and good luck with Bill’s Townhouse!