Bill Gilroy is one of the industry’s real players. Known as a hardass no-nonsense operator at places like Nell’s, Lucky Strike, and Match, he was one of those people always at the heart of well- run, successful places. His word has always been respected and good — a rarity in a world know for characters who try to get away with anything. Today, Employees Only and the new Macao Trading Co. are predictably making waves, and Bill Gilroy is behind them bringing experience, savvy, and that good word. I caught up to Bill at the Pod Hotel. We sat in his Pod Cafe and enjoyed food from his son Devon, the executive chef.
When did Billy become Bill? I’ve always known you as Billy Gilroy. If somebody asks my name, I say Bill.
I prefer Steven. My closest friends call me Steven, but almost everybody calls me Steve, and that’s because Steve Rubell told me it’s a very familiar name. Bill is a solid name; Billy is familiar — it’s like you’re accessible if you’re a Billy, whereas Bill might be a little more formal. Yeah, and William’s even more formal
Were you ever William? I was only William the first day of school, that’s it, or whenever I’m signing something, obviously.
You’re one of the most important people behind Nell’s, one of New York’s iconic clubs. The big breakout for Nell’s was the night they turned Cher away because she wouldn’t pay the five-dollar cover charge, and everybody paid five dollars at Nell’s. Well, actually, they didn’t recognize her. She had two young Spanish boys on her arms, and as they approached — actually before she even got within 10 feet of the ropes, I think — Thomás Mueller just said “It’s not happening tonight” without even going to the ropes. After that we had Thomás reading People magazine, because he was German and new to the country.
Cher was big news back then; Nell’s was seriously exclusive and serious about that 5 dollar cover. It really gave the club a boost. They turned away Eddie Murphy. He was with 12 people, and it was five dollars to get in, and he was ready to pay, but his entourage was like, “:Eddie Murphy don’t pay!”. So they kind of just got put through the other door. He came back the next night and paid the five dollars
He was at the Tunnel one night — he had a bottle of champagne, and the waitress came to me and said, “Eddie Murphy says that he doesn’t pay.” I didn’t mind him not paying because I would have comped him a bottle of champagne, but I wanted to go over to him — because my attitude was, if I comped a celeb a bottle of champagne, that means I was dropping their name in Page 6 tomorrow. That was the price. So I walked over to him and said, “I don’t mind you not paying, but in the future get a manager … the waitress doesn’t know to comp you if I’m not here.” And he said, “My clothes don’t have any pockets.” He was wearing a leather jumpsuit, and he didn’t have any pockets. You know he hates to get touched; he always had a bunch of people around him, because if you touched him, he really freaked out. Prince used to come to Nell’s quite often too, and he was also someone who he would never order directly — he would order through his bodyguard. He was one of those people — I guess similar to Michael Jackson — who’s so shy, and then they get up on stage and become so dynamic
What about you? You’ve mellowed over the years. I’ve not always been thought of as being the most easygoing,
How have you calmed down? Because I’ve been talking to you now for a few hours, and you’re a calm and collected and peaceful human being. Well, I’m working on my fifth marriage now, so that kind of wears you out. I’d like to think I wouldn’t make the same mistakes or react the same way as I did in my 20s or 30s over certain circumstances, just by virtue of the evolution of your consciousness through experience. Like they say, reincarnation is perfection to experience — it takes a few hundred times for me to get it, but I’ve had time to do it.
The club business is so rewarding — when it is rewarding — that you can fulfill a lot of your fantasies and your goals within it. You don’t necessarily have to prove yourself anymore after a certain point; you can look back and say. “I’ve done this body of work, I don’t have to answer to anybody, I may be a saloon-keeper — as Rick said in Casablanca — but that’s what I want to be.” And you are a saloon-keeper. Absolutely. You know, I serve soup and sandwich. That’s the common denominator here. I serve it to all types of people, whether they’re in fashion, the arts, Wall Street, or whatever. And for me it’s always been about networking, but networking in a way that the people who come get to meet people in fields perhaps opposite of what they’re into. For example, actors don’t necessarily want to meet other actors; they want to meet other people who live their lives differently.
Where did you get your start? I started at La Gamelle. I don’t know if you remember La Gamelle — it was on Grand Street, where Lucky Strike is now. I worked there with Florent Morellet, who opened Florent. He was the waiter, and I was the bartender, and there was a guy name Alex, little crazy Alex … He was the owner, an Algerian guy. I was there for the first five years. And then I went form there to the Water Club with Buzzie O’Keefe, and then I went to Café Luxembourg — that was Keith McNally. And then I went to Nell’s, and I was the maître ’d at Odeon.
And Keith was at Nell’s also, right? Yeah. Then I opened Lucky Strike with Keith, then went to Match from there, and then Match uptown, and then Match Hamptons, and then now most recently, Employees Only and Macao Trading Co.
We ate at Odeon yesterday, and my assistant Mary is sitting with us, and she’d never been there. I don’t know how many years old it is … 15, 20, 25? Almost 30 years old.
So now when you talk about training a staff — this is a three-week process with Keith McNally, and it’s really heavy — and it shows. You went through the Keith McNally system — Absolutely, he was definitely my mentor.
What does “service” mean to you? Everybody uses this word — we’re going to provide the best service there is, etc. So what does that mean? For me, great service is when it exceeds your expectations. If you go to a restaurant, you expect to be served, you expect the food to be decent, you expect that atmosphere to be nice … but when it exceeds that expectation, sometimes you can’t put your finger on it exactly. It’s important that the people I hire bring more to the table than just your basics, so I often prefer artists or people aspiring to be something else — they’re not career waiters. I’ve always felt like in traditional French or Italian restaurants, where they’re working those double shifts — those French shifts — and they’re subservient, and they’re standing off to the side … they almost look like they’ve been beaten down, and they’re not supposed to interact with the table. I’ve never enjoyed it personally, being served like that. When I am hiring people, it’s people who can interact with the table, they have a certain way about them … nice personalities and nice people.
I always hated it when they’re an actor, and after four years, they’re still bartending for me. I wanted them to get out and do well. Of course. And they bring that to the job — the fact hat they have some depth to them, another side, they can talk to the table. I’ve said many times the staff I have is more interesting than the clientele.