Barnegat Light, NJ
Winter hours: Friday, Saturday, Sunday; 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Breakfast served all day, lunch served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m..
- Cuisine: American
- Meals Served: Breakfast and Lunch
- Price Range: $$ ($9-$15)
- Restaurant Style: Diner
Ol' Barney isn't the only beacon on the northern tip of Long Beach Island.
For the past 37 years, fans of Bill Smith's homestyle fare have homed in on Mustache Bill's, an unassuming Jersey diner that's as much of a landmark in this commercial fishing hub as the lighthouse up the street.
"It's like a blast from the past," borough resident Marie Herrick, 77, said the other day before tucking into a short stack of steaming pancakes and a side of crispy bacon.
No less an authority than the James Beard Foundation, the country's premiere culinary organization, agrees with Herrick that Mustache Bill's is something special.
On Monday, the foundation named the diner as a winner of its prestigious "America's Classics" award, given to iconic "down-home eateries" around the country "that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape." It's the first diner so honored in the 11-year history of the awards.
"I'm really thrilled about it," Smith, 58, said in a telephone interview from Fort Myers, Fla., where he spends the off-season. "I associated James Beard with like three- and four-star restaurants — you know, gourmet stuff."
Andrea Clurfeld, an editorial writer and former dining critic at the Asbury Park Press who sits on the restaurant committee that selects the "America's Classics" winners, said Smith's utter devotion to his diner and the local fishing community it caters to make him deserving of the honor.
"He's exactly the kind of person who should get this award — just what he does, how he does it, how he uses local ingredients," she said. "James Beard himself would have said, "Hey, man, this is real American food!' "
Clurfeld recalled how, on her first foray to Mustache Bill's years ago, the diner was filled with the aroma of fresh roasted turkey, "like your grandmother's house on Thanksgiving morning." While she savored each bite of her fried fluke sandwich, reordering extra cupfuls of Smith's homemade tartar sauce, a group of fishermen who had caught the fluke that very morning sat in a corner booth, digging into eye-popping hot turkey platters.
"They take great pride in what they do," said longtime regular Kevin Wark, 45, a commercial fisherman who lives next door to the diner.
Smith operates the vintage, 86-seat, seasonal diner with his sister, Dottie Zauli. Self-described "Army brats," they spent some of their childhood years in Austria and Spain, among other postings, before settling in Barnegat Light, where both of them still live.
As a teen, Smith got a dishwashing job at what was then called the Barnegat Light Diner, owned by the late Joe Sprague.
"He could tell 2,000 jokes. He remembered everybody's name, what you ate," he said. "He was a force, that guy. He taught me how to work." Smith learned how to cook from scratch watching Sprague's sister-in-law, Margaret.
"It absolutely fascinated me," he recalled. "To this day, I try to make turkey gravy the way she did."
Sprague later sold the diner, and when that owner called it quits a few years later, Smith persuaded his father, the late Col. Bill Smith, to buy the place. That was in 1972, and Smith has been there ever since.
Smith, who's never once had to fire a member of his close-knit staff, starts work at 4:15 a.m. "I can't wait to eat one of my own pancakes," he said. He's not a fan of cold cuts so he roasts his own turkeys and roast beef. Virtually the entire menu, in fact, is made from scratch. There are frozen french fries, if that's what you want, but Smith's homemade fries outsell them 20 to 1, he said.
Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who ate a memorable creamed chipped beef at Mustache Bill's some years ago, said Smith's "genuine Jersey diner" is the perfect choice for an honor meant to recognize "those morsels of Americana that you hope never die."
Smith loves his work so much, a couple of winters ago he applied for a job as a cook at a Waffle House franchise in Fort Myers. They never called him back.
Come May 4, he'll be rubbing elbows and swapping recipes with the best and brightest of the food world at a gala awards ceremony at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. His sister said she can guarantee that fame won't change him a bit.
"I've always been a maniac about making sure everything I do is as perfect as it possibly can be," he said, "and I guess somebody finally noticed."