Serial Restaurateur Curt Huegel on Why It’s All About the Customer

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(image: D. Brandwein)

After 20 years in the business, Curt Huegel knows his way around restaurants and bars. The New York City restaurateur currently owns Host Restaurants, which includes Bill’s Townhouse, Campagnola, Lucy’s Cantina Royale and the just-opened Printers Alley, a Nashville-themed country music bar and restaurant near Times Square.

He originally got his start after college opening bars on the Upper East Side before expanding down to Miami and eventually teamed with John Meadow to open LDV Hospitality, which now has Scarpetta and Dolce Italian, among others. He went on his own in 2013 to launch Host and doesn’t seem to be slowing down, except when he drives his kids to school each morning from his home in suburban New Jersey. We chatted with Huegel about his restaurants and his love for a simple shot and a beer.

You’ve owned and operated a bunch of restaurants. What’s your secret to longevity?

The secret is doing things for your customers. Going into every project, whatever it is, making sure you do the projects with your customers in mind. People get caught up in doing things and trying to educate the customer, and I think that the smartest thing you can do is listen to your customer and give them what they’re asking for.

Bill’s Townhouse (image: B. Brokaw)

You started in the bar business and moved into restaurants. Why the change?

It went along with growing up—that your lifestyle has to change. When I started in the bar business in New York, you’re in the bar every night until 4 in the morning. As I grew older, it inevitably moved into the restaurant direction.

When you go out, what’s your drink of choice?

I’m not much of a wine guy or a mixed-drink guy. I’ve always been simple in my likes. A good steak and a cold beer, and I’m a pretty happy customer.

Is there a type of restaurant or genre of food you haven’t done but want to tackle?

I don’t. There isn’t a style of food necessarily that I look at as something I want to do. Another secret to my success is I try to stick to the things I know. Me opening a sushi restaurant? I don’t know enough about that. The restaurants I do now are very based in me as a customer, doing things I like and where I picture myself as a customer.

Printers Alley (image: B. Brokaw)

Speaking of which, what’s your latest project?

We’ve opened Printers Alley, a Nashville-themed country music bar restaurant [in New York City]. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I grew up listening to country music when nobody was. Now that it’s more mainstream, being able to do one was something I was interested in. When I first came to the city, I’d go to great country bars like Hogs & Heifers, and they’re all gone.

Having a number of restaurants in your stable, what’s a typical night for you?

Typical is a word I don’t really have. I do and I don’t. I generally run around to the restaurants during the day and eat almost every night at Campagnola. Tuesday and Thursday I’m at Bill’s during lunch. I spread myself around. Geographically they all run along the E train, so I try to get to all of the restaurants. Lucy’s is near my office, so I’m able to go back and forth a fair amount.

Do you usually have a drink while you’re running around? If so, what’s a go-to?

Now that we have a little more of a cocktail program at Bill’s, I’ll be with the beverage manager and try new cocktails when we’re working on a new list.

Huegel’s go-to drink when he’s not having a beer is a Vesper.

Do you have a favorite?

I just tried something I didn’t think I’d like—and it’s nothing too revolutionary—but I tried a Vesper for the first time, and I really liked it. When I’m in a scenario when I shouldn’t order a beer, that’ll be my go-to.

Since you seem like you’re out all the time, what’s your bar like at home?

I do have a good bar for entertaining at home that I built up with gifts over time. I just got a bottle of Pappy [Van Winkle’s] sent to me, so I’m sure I’ll keep that locked up. I don’t even know what year it is. Someone asked me the other day, and I meant to look.

Over the years, you’ve likely seen a lot of drink trends. What is one you’re glad is long gone, and are there any you miss?

As we started to move into this mixology crafted cocktails trend, in the beginning of it in the city, that was something I didn’t really get. Because of that, I was waiting for the bloom to come off the rose and for it to pass itself by. But over the years, I’ve gained an appreciation for the movement and people taking the time to create these recipes and making wonderful drinks. I think sometimes I’m an 80-year-old in a 48-year-old body. Sometimes I’m against something, but then I see there’s an art to it and have more appreciation for it.

When he was a bartender in college, Huegel drank shots of Grand Marnier, the bartender’s drink of choice at the time. (image: D. Brandwein)

Anything you think needs to go away today?

Probably Jameson. It kind of came into the bar world and was the only thing people would order in the regular bars. For me, it’s nice to see more balance.

Who is the most interesting person, famous or not, you’ve had drinks with?

Wow, that’s a good question. I was out one night with friends, and I don’t want to sound like a poser, but … I had drinks with Leonardo DiCaprio one night. I was impressed that he was a cool person, but he was also well spoken and down to earth. He asked me questions about my business, and we had a pretty interesting conversation. It was at a backyard barbecue in L.A. about 15 years ago.

What do you like to serve at a dinner party to kick things off?

It’s funny, doing this as much as I do, I don’t do a lot of entertaining at the house, but I would say in summertime, when we entertain the most, it’d probably be rosé. We had a party in the middle of this summer and made Dark & Stormys. It was the first time I tried my hand at making them, and they were a hit. I was surprised.

Huegel’s favorite beers are Coors Light and Smithwick’s.

Is there a quintessential New York drink you like?

Besides a Manhattan, I’m not sure if there is one. I think the New York drink is a great Martini—vodka Martini, no vermouth. I’ve been drinking Tito’s. They didn’t get me with the gluten-free; their marketing campaign got me with the American angle. I feel patriotic drinking Tito’s.

Any guilty pleasures you like to drink when no one is looking?

It’s kind of funny, but when I bartended in college, in Washington, Grand Marnier was the bartender’s drink, and I drank shots of it back then. So whenever I drink it, it takes me back to those days.

You said you’re a beer guy. What do you pick from the cooler?

The craft beer people in the world are going to hate me, but I like Coors Light. I like a lighter beer. There’s also a beer I love that I drank in Ireland called Smithwick’s, so anytime I can get it here in the States, I’ll drink it.

Locations: Miami New York City

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