John Campbell can’t help himself.
The owner of The River Palm Terrace in Edgewater, arguably the best steakhouse in North Jersey, if not the Garden State, can’t bear it if anything is not working perfectly in his near 40-year-old restaurant.
The music a tad too loud? The dining room temperature a degree too low? The draft beer an iota too warm? The thick, finely marbled, juicy porterhouse not 100% to your liking?
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 nearly every day from opening til near-closing. “Every little thing matters.”
Which may explain why The River Palm Terrace, unlike just about any restaurant in the region, is packed most every night of the week, make that, most every day and night of the week (the restaurant opens for lunch 11:30 a.m.).
“Every day here is a Saturday night,” said Campbell, a father of two who grew up in Englewood Cliffs and today lives in Fort Lee. (He also co-owns the Fair Lawn location; he sold the Mahwah branch a few years ago.)
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Campbell goes out of his way to please his diners. He makes sure the restaurant’s burnished wood floors are gleaming clean, the white tablecloths hang smooth and crisp, every valet-parked car is retrieved quickly and that each bathroom stall has fresh toilet paper. And he consistently provides darn good food: prime Black Angus steaks dry-aged in-house; fresh pristine seafood cooked to perfection; steakhouse sides as good as their meaty stars (don’t even think of not getting the hash brown potatoes); and sushi that can rival the best sushi in award-winning sushi restaurants.
He learned early on, he said, 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 try his utmost to make it happen.
“My motto is, ‘Never say no to a customer.'”
He recalls one diner who ordered a bowl of onion soup without … onions.
“I had to strain the onions,” Campbell said. “But I did it. I do not judge. If I can please the hardest customer, then I can please anybody.” Adding: “You can’t make money off of empty tables.”
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Two years after opening the River Palm, he recalls being told by a few customers to jot down the three most important ingredients for success. The customers, regulars at lunch, happened to be waiters at renowned Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger.
The ingredients for success? “One: quality. Two: quality. Three: quality,” Campbell recalled.
He gets his beef from vaunted 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 the bread (those not baked in house) from near-century-old Gianella’s Bakery in Paterson.
He still does all the food ordering himself. He also chooses the music (Sinatra is a favorite), selects the silverware (he secured the heavy-duty, heavy-weighted knives used at legendary Smith & Wolensky steakhouse after a manger crowed about them), curates the wine (he’s no wine connoisseur, he admits, but the River Palm has won Wine Spectator’s Wine Award of Excellence year after year), and greets nearly every customer. He knows most: 75%, he estimates, are regulars.
His customers are the people he says he counts on to tell him what’s good, what’s bad and what he needs to add or change.
“I learn from my customers,” he said.
After a customer who had just returned from New Orleans told him he should serve charbroiled oysters, Campbell began offering charbroiled oysters as a special and on request. After a group of regulars “kept after us” about providing roasted pig, Campbell bought a $350 Chinese roasting box, and a 60-pound pig and at 4 a.m. in the kitchen began with his crew the pig roast.
“We’ve since roasted six or seven; we do it as a lunch special.”
And after customers told him he should add sushi to the menu — they’d report witnessing long lines for sushi at Bar Mitzvahs — he hired sushi master Andy Lin, much (at first) to the chagrin of his staff.
“I almost had a revolution,” he said.
At a staff meeting a year later, the staff admitted they were wrong. Lin, who like Campbell is a constant presence in the dining room — he loves to chat with sushi lovers — is nearly as popular as the River Palm’s steaks.
“Every single table has sushi,” Campbell noted, adding: “You’ve got to take some chances.”
Campbell certainly did, when at age 25, he with three partners (only one, Grace Antone, remains) bought a run-down dive bar on River Road and turned it into a swanky 65-seat steakhouse. Campbell would go on to purchase the dry cleaners next door and a house nearby to enlarge both the restaurant and parking lot. Originally there were 14 car slots; today there are 70.
He opened River Palm without ever having dined at restaurants.
“Nervous ignorance is bliss,” he said. “I always did things before I should have.”
He still doesn’t dine out much. Campbell is the opposite of a “foodie.” He doesn’t eat fish, never tasted foie gras, can’t stomach the smell of truffles, hates cilantro and never tried sushi. “I won’t even eat the rice.”
His family couldn’t afford to dine out. His dad was a tax assessor. His mom, a homemaker, sang in the church choir for 50 years. At age15, he began 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 did a stint as a bartender at The Players Club in Hackensack (no, not the similarly named go-go spot in South Hackensack).
He worked hard to learn everything he could about the business, from how to choose the best steaks to which tomatoes are best to what glassware is best for wines.
“I’m happiest when I’m learning,” he said. “I’m still learning.”
His customers would say he’s earned an advanced degree in hospitality,
Among them is former Englewood Cliffs mayor Joe Parisi.
“The River Palm is the gold standard,” Parisi said. “Not only for steakhouses but all restaurants.”
Parisi recalled dining at a restaurant in Florida with his wife, when a couple nearby overheard them talking about New Jersey. The couple, eager to tell them about a restaurant they love in the Garden State, interrupted them. “‘We go to a great restaurant in North Jersey,'” Parisi recalled them saying. ‘”It’s called the River Palm.'”
Garry Salomon, an Englewood resident and partner at law firm Davis, Saperstein and Salomon, PC, in Teaneck, is a big fan too.
“There are two kinds of restaurants,” he said. “There is The River Palm Terrace and then there’s everyone else.” He added: “Not only do I think it’s the best restaurant, it’s the best-run business I’ve ever seen.”
Salomon said he eats at the River Palm at least once a week; he frequently takes his managers.
“I want them to watch 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 go-to place,” he said. “John does everything right. I’ve eaten everything there — fish, sushi, steaks lamb chops, burgers, stews. It’s all very good, delicious.”
Campbell hears that kind of stuff a lot.
“People tell me, ‘This restaurant is better than Peter Luger,'” he said. “I hear it, but I don’t take it in.”
He’d rather you tell him where he may have fallen short.
“Then,” he said, “I can fix it.”
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
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