Wolfgang Zwiener, namesake of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in downtown Miami, almost never eats lunch. When he does, he tends to go for simple salad greens, hold all the add-ons.
Today he sticks to bottled water as the suit-and-tie crowd starts streaming into his recently opened bayfront restaurant near AmericanAirlines Arena. The afternoon noise level rises as more and more customers are seated and waiters in white bowties and aprons start pouring wine and delivering hefty chopped salads followed by deeply charred steaks, lamb chops with pink centers, burgers that eat like fine steaks themselves.
Zwiener is being good now, but he’ll be splurging come dinnertime, which often involves sizzling, thick-cut Canadian bacon to start, along with sliced beefsteak tomatoes and onions smothered in vinegary, horseradishy, sugary red steak sauce made in-house. After that, he’ll indulge in a sizeable dry-aged porterhouse, a New York strip, a filet or a rib-eye. A man needs variety, after all. Whatever the cut, it’ll come to the table perfectly broiled, not a second past rare, with sautéed spinach and German hashed potatoes on the side.
“I eat steak all the time and I am healthy. I ate it for lunch and dinner almost every day for more than 40 years, and my cholesterol remains very low,” says the white-haired, mustached, always-dapper Zwiener, who favors well-tailored suits and silk ties.
He’s a guy with as serious a steakhouse pedigree as anyone can claim. For 37 years, he was headwaiter at the landmark Peter Luger in Brooklyn, which has been serving the pinnacle of porterhouses since 1887.
Zwiener started out as a waiter at the Peter Luger in Great Neck, Long Island, in the early 1960s, quickly moving over to the busier Brooklyn locale and making headwaiter by 1967. He put in a total of 41 years at Luger before opening his own steak place on Park Avenue in 2004. Now there are seven Wolfgang’s steakhouses, including four in New York, one in Beverly Hills and another in Waikiki. His son Peter, a former banker, and two other Luger waiters are among the partners.
Yes, Zwiener was the main man on the floor of perhaps the world’s most famous steakhouse during that high flying, three martini-lunch era stylishly captured by the TV series Mad Men. And yes, he has a lot of stories.
“I worked lunch five days a week, maybe six. And dinner six or seven days a week,” says Zwiener, 74, who was in the habit of changing his shirt, underwear, shoes and socks between afternoon and evening service. “Now businessmen don’t drink that much in the afternoon, and expense accounts are not what they were. Back then they wanted their martinis, whiskey sours, Manhattans. And they wanted them to keep coming. Everybody smoked. And there were very few women diners, especially at lunch. Some people thought we didn’t allow women, because sometimes there were only men in the restaurant.”
Though the occasional big spender, viewing the place as a clubhouse offering special immunity, came in with female company he should not have been fraternizing with in the first place.
A keen headwaiter could hurry cocktails and mega steaks to his tables and still keep an eye on the overall action in the dining room. Crucial when, say, a suspicious wife wandered in.
“We had this very wealthy man who was always with girls,” says Zwiener, who learned early on that discretion was a big part of the job. “One day his wife comes in and he’s there. But I spotted her quickly and he was able to leave through a different door. He just asked me to take care of the girls he was with. The wife, a nice redhead, said, ‘I know my husband is here. I saw his car outside.’ ”
What did Zwiener say to that?
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ ”
And yes, he was tipped nicely for running interference. But not nearly as nicely as the time another big spender, a Peter Luger regular wanting to impress some businessmen at his table, handed Zwiener $100.
“This is in the 1960s. Back then a check for one came out to about $5. So you can imagine $100 was big money back then. The man said to me, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ He didn’t want me to argue about it.”
Steakhouses are still about extravagance, and diners can still be quite generous, if you know how to take care of them.
“You’d be surprised at who the big spenders are sometimes. Someone can come in very poorly dressed, and they can be a billionaire. You have to treat everyone well. I had one very wealthy man come to the Park Avenue Wolfgang’s in a beat-up van and his check was $11,000. He ordered at least a couple of bottles of Screaming Eagle wine that cost $3,000 for each bottle. He must have just made a very big deal.”
So what does it take to be a proper waiter?
“I believe that you almost have to be born for it,” says Zwiener, who grew up in Bremen, Germany, and completed a three-year educational program there just to be able to work at waiting tables.
“You have to know how to be polite, not have any attitude, remember the names of the guests who come in regularly, remember who gets the dirty martini, who gets the wine,” says Zwiener, who retains his thick German accent. He made enough money as a waiter to send his two sons to the best schools (one has an MBA from Wharton, the other from the University of Chicago) and to buy a vacation home in Marco Island that he rarely visited because he was always on the floor at Luger.
“Waiters didn’t want to be actors back then. It is still true that you can make good money as a waiter, if you take the job seriously. I was trained back when you had to show up with your shoes polished, your fingernails very clean and short, your clothes spotless. Now waiters go running and then they put on their uniforms without showering first. Or they smell like they’ve been drinking or smoking cigars. Back in the old days, you had to have great respect for the people you served. I still look at the fingernails and shoes of the staff.”
He also still obsesses about the exact placement of forks, knives, spoons, bread plates, water and wine glasses — and he tries to pass on to his staff that passion for getting the smallest details right. He pays extra close attention to the creases in the tablecloths and expects every employee to do the same.
“The creases all have to be pointing in the same direction, toward the door. Because even if a guest doesn’t realize there is something off, he feels there is something that is not quite right if the creases on the tablecloths are all running in different directions.”
Even before opening his first New York Wolfgang’s, Zwiener looked at restaurant spaces in Miami and Coral Gables.
“But the deals didn’t work out and I think maybe then it was too soon for Miami. I always loved the city, but I think in the last few years, it has grown tremendously. You never saw the kind of traffic you see now, everywhere in town. I think Miami is going to keep growing, especially downtown.”
While the menu at Wolfgang’s is similar to the one at Peter Luger, down to the steak sauce and the schlag (a thicker, creamier version of whipped cream that diners scoop onto desserts, plop into their coffee and eat off spoons as if it were ice cream), Zwiener likes to say his restaurants are in fact quite different, thanks to broader options when it comes to seafood and cuts of house-aged steaks. Owners of Peter Luger were hardly thrilled with their star waiter jumping ship at 65 to start his own chain of steakhouses, which they consider an imitation of their place.
But Zwiener says he holds out hope that they can all get past the hard feelings some day.
“I haven’t been back. But I would like to go back, I would like to be friends with them. I would like to invite them, in the city or here, to sit together and laugh. Think about the 41 years we worked together. There was the Lincoln Continental that came right through the front door once. So many things happened.”