Men like Wolfgang Zwiener (pronounced Zwee-ner) are a rare breed these days. On the sweltering afternoon we meet him, the jovial German-born, New York-based owner of upscale New York steakhouse chain Wolfgang’s Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener is wearing a tastefully tailored suit with matching tie and pocket square, a Masonic signet ring perched on his finger.
The 78-year-old exudes the kind of old-world glamour that could only come from rubbing shoulders with the world’s richest and most famous — and for four decades he did just that, as the head waiter at New York culinary institution and celeb haunt Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, where he regularly served household names like Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock.
Yep, Wolfgang is a self-made man who worked his way up to his current position, put his two sons (both in their fifties now) through top American universities, and is now enjoying life as a towkay.
He opened his first Singapore outlet at the new InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay hotel a month ago, in partnership with a Japanese businessman.
To think the last time he came here, it was 1959 and he was a steward on a ship working for a shipping company.
“It was completely different back then — there were no skyscrapers,” he recalls in a thick German accent. “I was very young, about 20. I was here for four months.”
Since then, he pretty much hasn’t stopped working, except for that brief moment in 2004 when he considered retiring from his head waiter job at Peter Luger.
“I worked long hours and made good money. I always worked late at night ’cos you get $4 an hour working during lunch service, but $8 an hour if you worked dinners,” he says.
That same year, his son Peter, a former banker, convinced him to open their own steakhouse, using Wolfgang’s vast experience and contacts in the steak world. “Being your own boss is much better. You can do what you want!” Wolfgang guffaws, adding that he doesn't plan to retire soon.
He admits that the family who owns Peter Luger was “very, very upset” when their head waiter ventured out on his own. They have not been in touch since, and Wolfgang’s former bosses never dined at his establishments.
According to his son and Wolfgang’s wife Elena, who are also present at this interview, Wolfgang is the “face” of his restaurant empire now. And that also means jetting around to their 18 restaurants worldwide and mingling with their famous guests.
Some, like Robert De Niro and President Donald Trump, have followed Wolfgang from Peter Luger’s to his own restaurants. “I enjoyed my job back then as a head waiter,” shares Wolfgang. “That’s why I still go down to my restaurant in New York every night and talk to the people at every table. You have to love people [to be a waiter], and make them happy and feel at home so they will come back again. You cannot learn this. You have to be born with it.”
8 DAYS: Who are some of your most loyal celebrity customers?
WOLFGANG ZWIENER: I’ve known Robert De Niro for a long time. Once, at Peter Luger’s, he asked for the bill and took out his credit card, but I said, “Sorry, we only take cash.” So I paid the bill for him first and he sent me a cheque later on. After that, he’d always ask for me when he returned. When we opened our [own Wolfgang’s] restaurant in Tribeca [in New York], he dropped by.
Tell us about your other regular guest, President Donald Trump.
PETER ZWIENER: (Interjects) He came with his family to Wolfgang’s in New York the week before the election, but since he was elected, he only orders takeout. He takes his steak medium-well done. And he never drinks alcohol, only Diet Coke.
Wolfgang: Some people just can’t eat steak that is not well-done. It’s a preference. He always orders a shrimp cocktail, too. They have a limousine for the whole family.
Peter: Once, we were in talks with Donald Trump to open restaurants in Las Vegas and Chicago, and we flew with him in his plane to those cities [to check things out]. We ended up not signing a deal, but we know the family very well.
Any other notable stars who’ve dined at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse?
Peter: Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, who always comes in a baseball cap and shorts, the Kardashians, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Once, David and Victoria Beckham came and asked to eat in a private room. The super famous people usually ask to enter through the back door. Before famous politicians visit, their security personnel drops by three days prior to the meal and do a sweep of the restaurant.
Has Harvey Weinstein dined at your restaurants?
Peter: (Guffaws) Let’s not go there! He threw a few after-parties for his movies at our private room in the Beverly Hills branch. There were always a lot of people.
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was previously sued by celeb chef Wolfgang Puck in the US for having a similar restaurant name. Now you’re in Singapore, where there’s a Cut by Wolfgang Puck steakhouse at Marina Bay Sands. Is this town big enough for two Wolfgangs?
Wolfgang: Oh, we’re completely different. People always ask me, “Are you Wolfgang Puck?” And I say, “No. Wolfgang Puck makes pizza, I make good steak.”
Peter: I was the one fighting that lawsuit twice and both times [Wolfgang Puck] lost. We specialise in steaks, Puck is more a celebrity chef type of restaurant chain. When we opened the first Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in New York in 2004, he tried to stop us but he lost that lawsuit.
Then in 2008 we opened in Beverly Hills and he was actually very friendly to us at first. But the day before we opened, he tried to make us not open, and the battle started again.
We came to a settlement that we could call our restaurants Wolfgang’s Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener. There were no issues when we were opening in Singapore. We respect each other and everyone’s happy!
Read our review of Wolfgang's Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener here.