The son of Alan Stillman, founder of the seminal New York steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky, as well as the omnipresent, fast-casual chain, TGI Friday’s, Michael Stillman is bonafide restaurant royalty. And while he eventually launched Fourth Wall in 2007 with his father, the influential hospitality group behind Quality Italian, Quality Meats and the seasonally-metamorphosizing Park Avenue, Stillman insists he never intended to follow his dad’s footsteps into the restaurant industry. “While I definitely grew up around restaurants and in the lifestyle, I certainly wasn’t groomed to run them from the age of 12,” he said. “I actually studied art history early on, and worked a lot of political campaigns. And to me, the restaurant world mended those two worlds really nicely; it’s a lot of coordinating, a lot of different personalities, and a lot of solving problems on the go.”
Stillman’s eye for design is also well represented in his restaurants, such as the aforementioned Park Avenue, which literally changes four times a year; from a stark winter wonderland to a lush spring respite, and from a breezy, free-wheeling summer escape to a cozy, rustic cloister in the fall. “Our establishments at Fourth Wall tend to have a lot of design elements to them in general, a lot of interaction and theatrics, which really appeal to my creative side,” he said.
We spoke with Stillman about the pros and cons of running a business with his father, his favorite New York restaurants (besides his own, of course!) and what he learned from working for that other bigwig in the industry; Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer.
What did you learn early on from your dad about what makes a great restaurant?
There are no set rules, since restaurants can be such an art, like theatre, and there are so many different designs and paths that can be successful. But our style of restaurant, which I definitely think I got from my father early on, is a balance of pushing the design forward but still connecting with the audience. Being smart and tongue-in-cheek but accessible, resonating with people, connecting with their history or childhood memories. I took this from my father’s earliest restaurants.
And what are some of the most memorable lessons you learned from another big shot in the business, the Union Square Hospitality Group?
Working with Danny Meyer’s group was tremendous. And one of the things that he’s so good at is putting employees first. Thinking about their career goals and trajectories. Developing talent. And not just at the highest level of the restaurant hierarchy, but interacting with staff a few rungs down, and learning about their long-term goals. Not just when can I get a raise, but where do I want to be in the next five or ten years? And he makes it a priority to help get them where they want to go, which inevitably helps him get where he wants to go. That’s one of the greatest things I learned from Danny.
Your primary concentration at Fourth Wall is to open restaurant and nightlife concepts within New York City. What excites you the most about the New York dining scene? What’s the greatest challenge or frustration of opening restaurants here?
While I’m based in New York and a New Yorker and love the New York scene, we’re actually looking to expand to other cities, like Miami this February. But yes, it’s one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the world. Because patrons here are so interested in and aware of what makes a great restaurant, soup to nuts, not just the food but the service and space and ambiance and style. And the fact that the audience appreciates those details and challenges is both exhilarating and exhausting as a restaurateur. But staffing on a large scale is hard; the sheer volume and specific skill set of people you need to get the experience you want — we can have over 100 people working in one restaurant that all need to connect and move in a fluid motion. And finding and training those people, getting them to work seamlessly together, is hands down the hardest thing, and it only gets harder as the competition increases for quality staff in New York.
And what are the personal pros and cons for you when it comes to working with your father?
In any family business there are a lot of challenges. Like most restaurateurs, my father ran his business like a little fiefdom, and I’m the same way, so now it’s two people vying for a fiefdom. But I think we’ve navigated that well. And as I’ve said, running restaurants revolves around having a certain sensibility, and while we have a lot in common, we are also very different. And sometimes that can be challenging, because when it comes to taste, neither of us is fundamentally wrong or right, so it’s difficult to decide which way to go when there are a lot of opinions and no straight answer. But the tremendous pro is that there’s a level of closeness and emotion you bring to a family business; a shared passion for what you do.
How would you say your stable of establishments, Smith & Wollensky of course, but also Quality Meats, Quality Italian and Park Avenue, speak directly to what you’re about, what your style is, what your priorities are, at Fourth Wall?
We obviously have multi-generational restaurants within our organization, but I think they share a sensibility of great service but with an element of fun. There’s a lot of tableside presentation and interaction. We’re not just serving meals but creating experiences. When you walk into one of our restaurants, we want you to feel, from the food to the service to the environment, that you’ve entered another world completely; that you can leave your regular day and real life at the door.
Talk to me a bit about Park Avenue. Local and seasonal describes pretty much every notable restaurant nowadays, but what made you decide to create a restaurant that literally changes, top to bottom, every season?
The sheer challenge and audacity of it appealed to me. Not just decorating the space at a surface level each season, but actually creating four separate restaurants throughout the year. So when you walk into Park Avenue Autumn, it feels just like you’d want a high-end New American restaurant in New York to feel in the fall, or in the spring. In winter, it gets a little more formal and celebratory, and when you get to summer, it’s casual and warm. They all share the same chef and the same identity, but capture the essence of those particular moments in New York City, embodying how it feels to walk around New York in the winter, as opposed to the spring, summer or fall. There are restaurants that, for whatever reason, I prefer to go to in winter, and others in fall. So I wanted to create a space that you’d want to specifically return to each season.
Have you officially switched over to Park Avenue Winter? Can you tell me a bit about some of the primary changes, in terms of design and menu?
We switched over on December 2nd. The menu has changed almost entirely. We’re using lots of root vegetables and citrus. There’s a real white and black starkness to the space that we’ve mirrored on the plate, such as our Cauliflower T-Bone with black rice and white goat cheese which is both beautiful and delicious. We’re doing an Everything-Crusted Branzino. We’ve always done dishes for two, because winter is all about coming together and sharing meals, and this year, we’re continuing that with a Chateaubriand and a Veal Shank for Two. In terms of the décor, we’ve built 52 glass-bulbed chandeliers which are a mix of ornaments and crystals, and hung all over the central room with beautiful branches that flow throughout the center. We have a tremendous installation of lace and wood icicles in one room, and gatherings of tree roots in another, so you feel like you’re underground.
Besides your own restaurants, what are some of your favorite New York spots to go when you’re really looking to treat yourself, and what are some of your favorite down and dirty casual spots?
There’s a real range of spots that I like, which are often very different from the restaurants we own. I love Balthazar; it’s such a classic French bistro. I love sushi places such as Sushi Den, which has such spectacular chefs. I honeymooned in Tokyo, and I honestly think the chefs at Sushi Den create sushi at as high a level as what you’d find in Japan. Yakitori Totto is a real chefs haunt, and I love that. It’s very cool, walk-in only, and a great place to go late at night.
What’s next for Fourth Wall? What else to you have on the docket, both within New York and outside of New York?
Besides Quality Meats in Miami, we’re looking to expand the Quality brand in general, by adding some more casual spots like a Quality Grill, maybe downtown or in Brooklyn, as well as in other cities around the country.