Mustache Bill's wins America's Classics Award
BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J. - His first job, at age 14, was at this diner. So it seems fitting to Bill Smith that his last will likely be presiding over egg-cooking and turkey-prepping, perfecting the art of pancake-making, and handling everything else that goes into serving customers at his Mustache Bill's Diner.
If you can be a control freak yet still welcoming and friendly, Smith, 58, has perfected that art as well.
It may be that combination - high standards and the ability to smile when each patron at a table asks to customize his turkey club - that won Smith the restaurant business's equivalent of an Oscar.
In March, his popular Long Beach Island eatery received an America's Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation, named after the chef, author, and "dean of American cookery" who 60 years ago helped change how the nation's cuisine was viewed globally.
Diner food is often "of poor to middling quality," reads the citation, presented by chef Emeril Lagasse at a black-tie event at Lincoln Center in New York. "But not at Mustache Bill's. For more than 35 years, owner Bill Smith has made everything on the diner's menu from scratch - refusing to buy anything premade. It's the homemade, straight-from-the-heart cooking that makes Mustache Bill's a must-stop destination on the Jersey Shore."
Beard, who died in 1985, "would have loved them," Susan Ungaro, president of the Manhattan foundation, said of the America's Classics winners, one from each of five regions. They are "a very special group."
How his 90-seat place got noticed by such high-flying foodies puzzles even Smith.
"I knew there was a James Beard award. I just never knew it was something we could win. Not that we were trying to win it," said Smith, who has owned the 1950s-style diner, at Eighth and Broadway in Barnegat Light, since 1971.
"I get up at 4:15 a.m. every day to do what I do. To be recognized in this way, though, is definitely humbling - and very unexpected."
Mustache Bill's has long been a local favorite. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan waxed eloquent when describing its special Cyclops pancakes, seafood omelette, and creamed chipped beef in a 2003 guide to good eats at the Shore.
Smith thinks the accolades have to do with consistent quality and his insistence on the highest-grade ingredients. Each dish is made to order, said Smith, who will reject an egg if he doesn't like the "watery" way it looks when it hits the griddle.
"I had a lady in here the other day who said she's been eating turkey clubs here for 35 years," he said. "That turkey club she had that day was the same quality as the turkey club she had here 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. We never change how we do things, so the quality stays the same. Customers appreciate that."
Which reminded Smith of the computer-software company that tried to sell him a program that would quickly decipher his waitresses' scribbling when they recorded customers' special requests. After a couple of days, it wasn't working out.
The president of the firm was a former waitress who agreed to come down on a Saturday morning, he recalled. "After a couple of hours, she came to me and said forget it.
"She understood there was no way with the special requests that we do with every order - like who wants turkey gravy on their roast beef sandwich, that kind of thing - this software would ever work here."
Smith, who lives in Barnegat Light, got his first summer job at the diner as a dishwasher. Back then, the place was Joe's Barnegat Diner.
A few years later, his father had a heart attack, and Smith, a college student, was needed back home to care for him. Coincidentally, the owner of Joe's wanted to retire. Smith's family pulled together the money to buy the place, and he happily left school.
To some, his life might seem a grind. Mustache Bill's hours vary by season: It's now open 6 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday and till 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Hours get longer later in the summer. Unlike many Shore businesses, it closes just two weeks a year.
But Smith and his wife, Debbie, a former flight attendant who runs the front of the house, see it differently. "I really enjoy it," said Smith, who really does have a mustache. He can usually be found in the small kitchen, cooking and doing prep for the next day.
He loves preparing his Cyclops Special - a huge pancake with an egg cooked in the center - and other favorites, such as his artisan pancakes. Smith can pour batter onto the griddle in any shape a child fancies: a mermaid, a whale, a princess, a truck. He can even create a customer's likeness.
Even when there's a line out the door - and there usually is on sunny weekend mornings in June, July, and August - Smith patiently makes his customized pancakes. "It makes people happy," he said with a shrug.
On the windswept northern tip of the island - a deliberate destination rather than a happenstance stop on the way to somewhere else - Mustache Bill's relies on its regulars, Smith said. They're his bread and butter.
"He's a very hardworking guy. Everybody likes him, and the food's good," said Eddie Martin, 81, a summer resident of the island's Loveladies section who has patronized Mustache Bill's for more than 30 years. Martin said he wasn't the least bit surprised that Smith had won a prestigious culinary award.
But Smith, who is near retirement age himself, worries about the future of the diner.
"I realize that this place really is an American institution and that I'm just the current curator of it," he said. "At some point the operation of it will be passed to someone else.
"I hope they realize that this is more than just a diner . . . that they understand it the way that I do."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.