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.’ ”