They don’t look alike, but you’d easily peg these two as brothers in a room of fifty guys. Partly because they share an imposing 6ft-plus stature and partly because they have the same manner of speech, but mainly because of some precious simpatico rarely found in other pairs, brothers or otherwise. They finish each other’s sentences, they dress alike—it’s easy to see they’ve stayed close most of their lives. To each other, but also to their parents and their Manhasset based operations. Even to their middle brother Dean. Though he moved to Manhattan around 2000 to start running restaurants independently, he remains an immediate presence in the conversation. I’m looking at “the Poll brothers,” usually referred to as “the Poll brothers—comma—they’re tough,” underscored by meaningful nods of the head. I’m looking at them in their impressive physiques, well styled, relaxed, open and affable, and I see two guys who could easily be my brothers, or yours…the pair of brothers everyone remembers growing up with. They’re tough, yes, that’s what makes them good, but they’re also the guys other guys want to hang out with because despite all that tough focus on perfection, they are two guys obviously enjoying the moment they’re in as much as the one yet to come (and the one that just passed).
It started at their first restaurant, Pappas of Sheepshead Bay on Willis Avenue.
Photo Credit: Rick Wenner
Gillis: …because we’re happy and so dedicated to our work, people recognize that…I drove a fish truck in the beginning [for the restaurant]. And it took years and years and years (to make it).
George: And not making it wasn’t an option. There was too much on the line… Gillis was doing the front, Dean was doing the buying and other things, and when I’d come home from school, I was doing the cash register with Gillis up front.
Gillis: Dad was fanatical about having the best.
George: He taught Dean and Dean taught me.
Gillis: Mom always said, “Watch the store.”
George: “Work together, stick together,” that’s what I hear her saying.
Gillis: They’re happy because we’re close by. Our father is 92 years old and he’s in the restaurants every night.
George: It makes them happiest that we’re close to each other. Our mother is always saying, “my three boys.”
A significant moment would come when then-Manero’s went up for sale. The Polls reinvented the casual steakhouse into a premier butcher and first-class steakhouse. It was a coup, but also a catapult.
Gillis: We had the idea to make it a prime, New York-style steakhouse. There was only Luger’s and North Shore in the neighborhood and we wanted to go up against the best.
George: I think the best part of the story is a guy who was a valet and a bus boy there now owns it. [Gillis worked at Manero’s as a kid when not at his father’s restaurant]… At the time, Dean left [for Manhattan], so we really had to keep an eye on everything—every customer, every dish—and when The New York Times rated the beef emporiums in the area, we were rated number one.
That was 2001.
George: Now our thinking is “growth.” We’re very blessed, many offers are coming to us…we took a gamble to do a restaurant in a shopping center [Cipollini].
Gillis: So we had to find out what was going to work there, for that space…and then again Toku, and now this [Hendrick’s]. It’s always been fun and challenging, but now it’s about the fun and the challenge.
There are ways they differ, one yins to the other’s yang, but it’s really a story of two guys who are so much alike they have practically the same instincts.
Gillis: I could come in with a striped shirt and jeans and he comes in with a striped shirt and jeans.
George: I could come in with a polo and khakis and he comes in with polo and khakis. The next day I go for something totally different, a jacket with button down and jeans, and he comes in the same!
Gillis: We love what we do, we love food and wine, and we love people.
George: And we love each other. We have something else in common: We both think we’re the funny one.
They’re both right. They’re also natural collaborators. When it comes to developing a new venue, picking a new table water or the details of setting a table, they relish their collaboration as much as the task at hand.
George: …down to the salt and pepper shakers. What kind of fork? Why is this folded this way, not that way?
Gillis: We have a general concept for the designer and we tweak the details. We put the menus together—
George: —and we have to find the chefs who can execute what we want.
Gillis: We’re both into style and design, but he’ll do the wine—
George: —but he’ll do the liquor, because I don’t know the liquor…in the rare case you don’t ask the other one, you see it every time, had you gone to the other person, it would’ve been that much better.
Gillis: But it’s not one [of us] over the other.
George: Communication is key—as in any relationship—communication and respect… The people we grew up with [in Flower Hill, Manhasset] are our customers now… But the person at Majors worked just as hard for his money as the person dining here [Hendrick’s]. It might not be as high a price point, but still, he deserves the same respect.
1960 Dad opens Pappas of Sheepshead Bay
1980 Gillis, Dean and George open Pappas of Sheepshead Bay on Willis Avenue
1987 Bryant & Cooper
1990 Pappas becomes Riverbay
1993 Majors Steakhouse, East Meadow
1994 Majors Steakhouse, Woodbury
2010 Bar Frites
2012 Hendrick’s Tavern