Boardwalk Journal - February 2012

Atlantic City's #1 Steakhouse

For a self-proclaimed “Baltimore guy” born in North Jersey, Paul Sandler is exactly where he wants to be. The Jersey Shore indulges his passion for the ocean; he holds a degree in marine biology. His career choice — as general manager of The Palm in Atlantic City — satisfies another side of him.

By Felicia Lowenstein Niven

“I love working for a family-owned business that appreciates what we do,” he said. “There’s a different feel than a corporation—inspiring a pride in work and an attention to detail that just can’t be duplicated.”

The Palm’s founders Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi would have approved. From day one, they set out to create a place where guests could enjoy an excellent meal. Of course, they had envisioned calling it La Parma, after the capital city of their native region in northern Italy. But a New York City mercantile clerk, who couldn’t understand their heavy Italian accents, would make the decisive vote.

“It was easier to use the new name, The Palm, instead of getting the license reissued,” said Sandler.

The Palm first opened its doors in 1926 at the corner of 45th Street and Second Avenue, a location still in operation today. But in those early years, there wasn’t a steak on the menu. The food was largely northern Italian.

That didn’t stop The Palm from serving steak, according to early accounts.  It took just one customer request, sending co-owner John Ganzi to a nearby butcher shop on Second Avenue. He bought a steak, cooked it to order and the rest was history.  As the requests for steak came in, it was added to the menu—and today is one of The Palm’s signature offerings.

Another great tradition started back at that first location. “Many of our early customers worked for the newspaper,” said Sandler. “They were cartoonists. They didn’t always have the money to pay for a meal, so they proposed a trade—a cartoon on the wall in exchange for a plate of pasta or a steak. If you visit the original location, you’ll see those cartoons.  But it’s also became a Palm tradition at every location to feature caricatures of Palm celebrities on the walls.”

These are not necessarily the celebrities most people think of when they hear the term—though Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump, and Whoopi Goldberg are up on the wall in Atlantic City.  So are New Jersey Senator Bill Gormley and talk show host and columnist Pinky Kravitz, people who are important to Atlantic City.

“My celebrities are those people who dine with us,” said Sandler. “If you’re a regular, chances are you’ll get an invitation to go up on the wall.”

Despite opening just before the Great Depression and World War II, The Palm thrived. Somehow, they were able to keep a steady supply of high quality meat, even during food rationing.  By the 1950s, The Palm was the home of the ‘three martini lunch’ for Madison Avenue executives in advertising and fashion.

It was its consistency and quality that kept them coming back. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that The Palm decided to expand.

“It was less of a restaurant chain than an extended family,” noted Sandler. “The owners were hands-on at every new location, including our most recent expansion in London.”

Sandler was handpicked for The Palm staff when the restaurant opened in Atlantic City. He had had a 17-year tenure at Showboat/Harrah’s and managed two of the property’s most acclaimed gourmet restaurants, where he designed and executed a wine program that had become a customer favorite.

The Palm opened at The Quarter at the Tropicana in 2005, with Sandler on board as assistant manager. A year later, he was promoted to general manager.  Under his successful leadership, The Palm Atlantic City was named the best of its 26 restaurants in 2009 by the parent company.

“Even though The Palm is not a casino restaurant,” he said, “I think my experience at the casinos definitely helped me to prepare.  I understand how to create a memorable guest experience and to build relationships with guests. And I appreciate that The Palm is a family business that adheres to tremendously high standards. Of the million restaurants that sell steak, only a handful sell the quality of USDA prime that we do. And among them, we still go ‘above and beyond’ with attention to detail and quality of service.”

He notes that The Palm doesn’t hire its wait staff ‘off the street.’ There is a hierarchy of training that is required of every staff member. “You start as an assistant waiter,” said Sandler. “Now most of our assistant waiters have more experience than the average server. But we feel it’s important for them to learn the culture of The Palm before they’re promoted to server.”

“The people we employ are all professionals,” he added. “They’re here because they want to be here. That’s what makes the environment so positive. It’s an absolute pleasure coming to work.”

The food is another differentiator.  “We make a great steak,” acknowledged Sandler. “I’d also put our crab cakes against the best in Baltimore,” which is high praise from someone who spent his early childhood eating Chesapeake Bay seafood. But Sandler’s personal favorite goes back to the restaurant’s heritage. “Our chicken parmigiana is simply the best I’ve ever had,” he said. “Period.”

Sandler frequently samples the menu items as a quality check. “Just look at my waistline,” he joked. “I love steak and potatoes. But I try not to indulge too much.”

His wife, Patty, and daughters Alysa, age 14, and Samantha, age 11, are frequent visitors to the restaurant. The girls accompany Sandler often during their summer break. “They’re known as The Palm princesses,” he said, “and they have plans to work here when they’re older.”

Having his family around at work seems like a natural, because as Sandler notes, The Palm is all about family and community. “No matter what market The Palm goes into, even a large city like Los Angeles, we’re considered the local restaurant,” he explained. “It’s one of those places where you can get a great meal in a more relaxed atmosphere; no tie necessary. We also work to become part of the community.”

Toward that end, The Palm has been a staunch supporter of the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club and of Gilda’s Club, a cancer support organization. The restaurant holds annual fundraisers, donating time, labor and food.

For his work, Sandler was honored in 2010 with the Humanitarian of the Year award from the Atlantic County chapter of the American Conference of Diversity.

“I was surprised and very moved to be recognized,” he remembered. “It’s not about marketing or getting the recognition for the company. Sometimes it’s just about digging deep, and doing something because you know it’s the right thing to do.”

You get the feeling that Sandler puts as much passion into his work.  His energy is palpable. “I really want to offer my customers something different, to raise the bar,” he said, as he described the various special events he has planned for 2012. “We’re going to host 11 or 12 theme dinners, a Scotch dinner in February, a craft beer dinner in April and maybe a wine dinner in June. We’ll set up a great Palm menu, one of our signature steaks and salads, raise it up a notch. We’ll have a guest speaker from the distillery or the winery come and speak. And guests can drink all night long.”

Also in the works is a Broadway style dinner theatre in the round for April. “We have actors coming down from New York to perform a nationally known Broadway show,” he said. “This is something different for Atlantic City, something I think people will really enjoy.”

The Palm also will take the restaurant experience out to you, via its catering department. Sandler explained that they bring everything—from the plates and linen tablecloths to the chef, wait staff and food—to your home or other location.

“We recreate The Palm for you,” he said, “and cook everything on site at your house. We do a tremendous amount of catering in the summer, including seasonal openings and closings in people’s homes.”

For those who want a private dining experience at the restaurant, there are three private dining rooms. And there’s no shortage of special events at The Palm.

“This is a celebratory restaurant,” Sandler said. “The table next to you might be closing a big deal. The couple at the other table might be getting engaged.” Toward that end, The Palm servers have hidden engagement rings inside cakes or tied them to bottles of champagne.

But you don’t need a special occasion to go to The Palm, according to Sandler. “It’s fine dining where you can also relax.”

So if you venture out to The Palm in Atlantic City, make sure to say hello to Sandler. If you do it often enough, you just might find yourself up on the wall.

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