John Campbell can’t help it.
The owner of The River Palm Terrace in Edgewater, arguably the best steakhouse in North Jersey, if not the Garden State, can’t stand that something isn’t working perfectly at his nearly 40-year-old restaurant.
Music a little too loud? Dining room temperature one degree too low? Draft beer one iota too hot? Do you not like the thick, finely marbled and juicy porterhouse 100%?
It won’t stay that way for long.
“If it’s not perfect, I have to fix it,” said Campbell, 63, who can be counted on to be at his 130-seat restaurant almost every day from opening until almost closing. “Every little thing counts.”
Which may explain why The River Palm Terrace, unlike almost every restaurant in the area, is packed almost every night of the week, do it almost every day and evening of the week (the restaurant opens from noon to 11:30 a.m.).
“Every day here is a Saturday night,” said Campbell, a father of two who grew up in Englewood Cliffs and now lives in Fort Lee. (He is also co-owner of the Fair Lawn site; he sold the Mahwah branch a few years ago.)
The story continues after the gallery
Campbell goes out of her way to please her guests. He makes sure the restaurant’s burnished wood floors are clean and shiny, the white tablecloths are smooth and crisp, every valet car is picked up quickly, and every bathroom stall has fresh toilet paper. And it consistently delivers great food: premium Black Angus steaks dry-aged on site; fresh, pristine seafood cooked to perfection; steakhouse sides as good as their meaty stars (don’t even think about skipping the hash browns); and sushi that can rival the best sushi in award-winning sushi restaurants.
He learned early on, he says, that success depends on quality.
“It’s all about quality,” he said. “I take it personally if someone doesn’t like their meal.”
And if someone wants the seemingly impossible, Campbell will do his best to make it happen.
“My motto is: ‘Never say no to a customer.'”
He remembers a diner who ordered a bowl of onion soup without…onions.
“I had to strain the onions,” Campbell said. “But I did. I don’t judge. If I can please the toughest customer, then I can please anyone.” Added: “You cannot win money with empty tables.”
Celebrities:Soon to be Yi Previn, wife of Woody Allen, having lunch at the River Palm Terrace in Edgewater
Thrillist, sorry: Here are the best restaurants in New Jersey
Say goodbye:Baumgart’s Cafe is closing permanently
Two years after the River Palm opened, he remembers a few customers telling him to write down the three most important ingredients for success. The lunch regulars happened to be servers at the famed Brooklyn steakhouse, Peter Luger.
The ingredients for success? “One: quality. Two: quality. Three: quality,” Campbell recalled.
He gets his beef from famed meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda, headquartered in North Bergen; his fish from Hunt’s Point Market in the Bronx and Peter’s Fish Market in Midland Park; and bread (those not baked at home) from the nearly century-old Gianella’s Bakery in Paterson.
He still does all the food ordering himself. He also picks the music (Sinatra is a favorite), picks the silverware (he secured the heavy, heavy knives used at the legendary Smith & Wolensky steakhouse after a nativity scene sang about them); organizes the wine (he’s not a wine connoisseur, he admits, but the River Palm has won the Wine Spectator’s Excellence Award year after year) and welcomes almost any guest. He knows the most: 75%, he estimates, are regulars.
His clients are the people he says he relies on to tell him what’s good, what’s bad, and what he needs to add or change.
“I learn from my clients,” he said.
After a customer who had just returned from New Orleans told him he had to serve grilled oysters, Campbell began offering grilled oysters as specials and on request. After a group of regulars “kept us after” for providing roast pork Campbell bought a $350 Chinese roaster box and a 60 pound pig and at 4am in the kitchen started with his crew roast pork.
“Since then, we’ve roasted six or seven of them; we do it as a lunchtime special.”
And after customers told him he should add sushi to the menu – they reportedly reported witnessing long lines for sushi at Bar Mitzvah – he hired sushi master Andy Lin, much to his chagrin. (at the beginning) of its staff.
“I almost made a revolution,” he said.
At a staff meeting a year later, the staff admitted they had been wrong. Lin, who like Campbell is a constant presence in the dining room – he loves to chat with sushi lovers – is almost as popular as the steaks at the River Palm.
“Every table has sushi,” Campbell noted, adding, “You have to take risks.”
Campbell certainly did, when at age 25 he and three partners (only one, Grace Antone, remains) bought a ramshackle dive bar on River Road and turned it into a swanky 65-seat steakhouse. Campbell would go on to buy the dry cleaners next door and a house nearby to expand both the restaurant and the parking lot. Originally there were 14 car slots; today there are 70.
He opened River Palm without ever having dined at the restaurant.
“Nervous ignorance is bliss,” he said. “I always did things before I should have.”
He still doesn’t dine much. Campbell is the opposite of a “foodie”. He doesn’t eat fish, has never tasted foie gras, can’t stand the smell of truffles, hates coriander and has never tried sushi. “I won’t even eat the rice.”
His family could not afford to dine at the restaurant. His father was a tax assessor; his mother, a housewife, sang in the church choir for 50 years. At 15, he started working at the Bicycle Club in Englewood Cliffs. He was hired for one night to help in the parking lot. “I stayed for 10 years.”
He worked his way up from washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms to making burgers and waiting tables. He also had a stint as a bartender at The Players Club in Hackensack (no, not the go-go spot of the same name in South Hackensack). .
He worked hard to learn everything he could about the business, from how to choose the best steaks to the best tomatoes to the best wine glassware.
“I’m happiest when I’m learning,” he said. “I keep learning.”
His clients would say he graduated with an advanced degree in hospitality,
Among them, the former mayor of Englewood Cliffs, Joe Parisi.
“The River Palm is the gold standard,” Parisi said. “Not just for steakhouses but all restaurants.”
Parisi recalls having dinner at a restaurant in Florida with his wife, when a couple nearby overheard them talking about New Jersey. The couple, wanting to tell them about a restaurant they love in the Garden State, cut them off. “‘We’re going to a great restaurant in North Jersey,'” Parisi recalled. ‘”It’s called the River Palm.'”
Garry Salomon, an Englewood resident and partner at the law firm Davis, Saperstein and Salomon, PC, in Teaneck, is also a big fan.
“There are two types of restaurants,” he said. “There’s The River Palm Terrace and then there’s everyone else.” He added: “Not only do I think it’s the best restaurant, it’s also the best run business I’ve ever seen.”
Solomon said he ate at the River Palm at least once a week; he frequently takes his managers.
“I want them to look at how the place is run,” he said. “It’s a seminar for my managers.”
Paul Leale, a commercial bank officer in Englewood Cliff who resides in Fort Lee, stops in three times a week.
“It’s my favorite place,” he said. “John does everything well. I ate everything there – fish, sushi, steaks, lamb chops, burgers, stews. Everything is very good, delicious.”
Campbell hears this stuff a lot.
“People tell me, ‘This restaurant is better than Peter Luger,'” he said. “I hear it, but I don’t understand it.”
He prefers you to tell him where he may have failed.
“So,” he said, “I can fix it.”
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor of NorthJersey.com. To find out more about where to dine and drink, please register today and join our North Jersey Eats Newsletter.
E-mail: [email protected]