Ryland Redux

Veteran restaurateurs Frank and Jeanne Cretella apply their outsize personalities and hands-on style to their biggest challenge yet—reviving the legendary Ryland Inn.

The Cretellas (in the Ryland rafters), will debut a new menu and a new look.
Photo by Peter Murphy.

The barrel-chested guy in the black T-shirt and jeans tromping over dirty plywood floors and talking, loudly, in an accent easily pinned to Staten Island is not who you think he is.

He’s not the foreman of the construction crew fixing up the historic Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, which is where you’ve encountered him on a late April afternoon.

And he’s not a structural engineer, despite his gesturing while discussing the former four-star restaurant’s uneven floors and sagging ceiling beams.

He is Frank Cretella, and he owns the place.

Though his confidence-exuding walk and talk belie it, being the newly minted deed holder of the building and the bucolic 10-and-a-half acre property it sits on makes him a little…nervous.

“I know there’s a big legacy behind the restaurant,” he says. “And I know people are going to say it’s not the same, it’s not the old Ryland”—that is, the fabulous, formal, fastidious temple of French-influenced cuisine whose chef and one-time owner, Craig Shelton, put it on the map in the early 1990s and became the first New Jersey chef to win a James Beard Award (Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, 2000).

“But the Ryland,” Cretella hastens to add, “wouldn’t be the same if it were still here today. If it hadn’t closed, it would be headed in the direction we’re taking it.”

Which is to say, toward a more casual, but still epicurean, fantasyland. Plans for the new Ryland include not only an ambitious restaurant with a star executive chef, but also a cooking school, several acres of vegetable and herb gardens, a boutique hotel and guest cottages, and a  12,000-square-foot catering hall.

Cretella, 54, has his reasons for thinking he knows what’s best for the Ryland, which closed in the winter of 2007 after a burst water main knocked out heat and electricity, caused extensive water damage and led to a long standoff involving Shelton’s insurance coverage and serious arrears on his mortgage. Before foreclosure ended the Shelton era in 2007, he told Cretella that expanding and diversifying the business was the only way to keep it viable. In fact, Cretella and Shelton partnered in 2007 in an unsuccessful bid to forestall foreclosure and recapitalize the business, and had another joint offer spurned in 2010. Cretella’s latest offer, made solo last year, was accepted, he says, because the bank finally wanted to move the Ryland off its books.

Another reason for Cretella’s confidence is that he has always had a pretty good idea of what people want. The first sign of that came almost 35 years ago—with a hot dog stand.

“I must have been 18, 19,” he says, leaning against the Ryland’s bar, which will be renovated before the restaurant’s anticipated opening this month (the rest of the culinary theme park will not open until 2013). “I used to get the New York Times and look at the business listings—everything was listed back then.” One listing, from the New York City Parks Department, sought bids for a concession stand in Central Park. “It was my first time ever alone in Manhattan,” says the Staten Island native, “but I went and they gave me a tour.”

Having dropped out of St. John’s University after “about two weeks,” Cretella signed a lease in 1978 to operate the hot dog stand. But he wasn’t interested in mustard-smeared foot-longs. “I wanted to create a point of difference from all the other food vendors,” he says.

Enter Jeanne, his longtime girlfriend, with her first eureka moment. “Jeanne conceptualized the offerings and I did the build-out of the stand.” Appealing to the budding health-food sensibilities of the late 1970s, Jeanne’s menu highlighted pita sandwiches and carrot cake, which she baked each night from her mother’s recipe. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so unique—carrot cake!’” Cretella says.

Thus did Jeanne become Cretella’s business partner and, soon, his wife. They had met on Staten Island when they were in middle school—Jeanne, born in Brooklyn, moved in across the street from Frank when she was 12. She fell off her bike, he helped her up, and neither ever dated anyone else. They married in 1982, when Frank was 24 and Jeanne 23. Their surviving parents still live across the street from each other.

Carrot cake was just the ground floor. In 1983 the Cretellas took over what was then Central Park’s Boat House snack bar. By 1985, they had turned it into a four-walled restaurant, the Boat House Café, now familiar to those who frequent Central Park. The transformation required a full-bore construction project, which Cretella, though inexperienced, managed to run.

“My mother’s brothers were all carpenters,” he explains. “That’s how I got into the construction business. I never had enough money to hire anybody to build a restaurant for me, so I had to learn how to do it myself.”  Learn he did. Another of Cretella’s businesses is Jersey City–based Black Dog Construction and Landmark Developers, a real estate company that specializes in developing urban areas around train stations and the re-use of factories. Landmark is currently developing Plainfield’s North Avenue station.

The construction help Cretella enlisted for that first project has tended to stick around. “A lot of guys building the Ryland right now worked with me on the Boat House 30 years ago,” he says. “What happened was, we hired a bunch of guys, and we liked them. So we’d keep buying restaurants so we could keep the guys working.”

Among the projects that kept the guys busy after the Boat House: the onetime Brooklyn seafood mecca, Lundy’s, which the Cretellas revived in 1995 after 17 years of dormancy, and American Park at the Battery, a Manhattan seafood place with an extensive wine list and perfect views of the Statue of Liberty. Before Frank and Jeanne took it over in 1998, it had been a maintenance shed. 

With three thriving restaurants, the Cretellas were building an empire, and the empire needed a name. So in the mid-1990s, they launched their first hospitality company, TAM Restaurant Group (Today’s American Meal). The TAM story doesn’t have a happy ending: In 1998, Cretella took the company public, a decision that was “definitely a mistake, and something I feel bad about,” because they lost “the culture of the company,” he says. 

“At the time our vision of growing included being public, but being a public company that small was not worth it in 1998,” he explains. “We had some great people on the board,” but relinquishing their role as sole decision-makers didn’t sit well. So they sold their shares in the company.
 
Then came a period of restlessness. “I was like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ I was a little depressed,” Cretella says. One night, he and Jeanne took in an Andrea Bocelli concert in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park. “We were driving, and I see this structure—it was rusted steel coming up out of the ground. I said, ‘That’s a restaurant somebody’s building that’s in trouble.’”

Indeed it was. The rusted steel eventually became Liberty House, a wedding hotspot on the Hudson River with a spectacular view of lower Manhattan. It’s one of the current crop of picturesque businesses the Cretellas run under their Jersey City-based Landmark Hospitality banner. Its sister establishments, along with the Ryland, are Stone House at Stirling Ridge, an upscale Warren restaurant, and Celebrate at Snug Harbor, a wedding and event venue on Staten Island.

None of them has been around very long—Liberty House opened in 2002, Stone House in 2007 and Celebrate at Snug Harbor in 2009. What they all have going for them, though, is the Cretellas’ belief in lasting relationships. Frank’s commitment to the construction guys is one example; their 30-year marriage, another. To hear them talk, restaurant building is mainly relationship building.

Back in 1997, when the couple was still running TAM, their practice of printing personalized business cards for every server earned them a mention in the trade journal Nation’s Restaurant News.

“It just amazes me that it’s perceived as something that’s unique and different,” Jeanne told the magazine. “I think it’s to the restaurant’s advantage to have the wait staff say to the customer, ‘Here’s my card, and the next time you come in, ask for me,’” she continued. “The first time we gave out business cards to our staff, it was like handing out $100 bills. They were thrilled to think that we thought that much of them.”

More than a decade later, Jeanne, who pulls up to the Ryland in a green Jaguar to meet her husband after a lunch check-in at Stone House, says their view of themselves has evolved.

“We are a little unique in the way we work with our waitstaff,” she acknowledges. “We want them to feel empowered.” That means all servers are free to comp customers drinks or desserts when they deem it appropriate, she says. “That’ll carry over here at the Ryland.” Every Landmark Group server still gets a business card.

Everyone in the hospitality business touts warmth and graciousness as fundamental. But Jeanne—petite, glamorous and possessed of the same earthy accent as her husband—has a manifesto: “You want people when they come in to feel like you know who they are. That’s a big part of our business. You go, ‘Gee, you were here last weekend, at that table. Do you want to sit there again or somewhere different?’ You want your guest to connect with everyone [on staff], not just the person who meets them at the door.”

While Frank focuses on deal making and the physical part of building businesses, Jeanne weaves herself tightly into day-to-day operations. On a typical day, she’ll circulate between all the restaurants, greeting regulars and meeting with managers. Watching her in action is instructive. On a May night at Liberty House, she is in her element. 

“Safe trip back,” she tells a party of well-dressed regulars who stop to kiss her on the cheek before heading for the valet. Behind her, the Manhattan skyline soars, and a singer with a guitar entertains the packed dining room and clusters of bar patrons with “Arthur’s Theme.” A minute later, she is scurrying to surprise a couple—who come in every year for their anniversary—by arranging a vase of roses on their table before they sit down. 

At the 13,000-square-foot Ryland Inn, which will seat 130 during warm-weather months, when up to 65 people can sit outside on a back patio, Jeanne will be assisted in her bid to connect with every customer by a sizable staff—a projected 150, once the hotel and catering are in place.

Among those 150, the one on whom most eyes will be trained is executive chef Anthony Bucco, a farm-to-table advocate recommended to the Cretellas by none other than Shelton, who is now a restaurant consultant. Bucco, a Monmouth County native, most recently made a splash at Uproot in Warren after earning praise for years at New Brunswick’s beloved Stage Left.

The eyes on him in his new job won’t only be figurative: The kitchen at the revamped Ryland will be open to one of the five dining rooms, a 12-seater with a full view of the cooking line.

“It’s really cool stuff—it’s motivation not to mess up and to keep a clean house,” Bucco says on a walk through the building with the Cretellas, during which he and Frank kick around the idea of building bookshelves for his cookbook collection near one of five fireplaces. Bucco designed his own chef’s room off the kitchen. 

The prospect of orchestrating, on a sprawling property, several kitchens—one for the restaurant. one for the catering hall, an instructional kitchen and a bread baking kitchen—doesn’t faze him, Bucco says, because he ran two separate kitchens with two separate staffs at Stage Left. That kind of confidence is crucial, considering the scope of the plans.

In addition to the catering hall, there’s the 40-room hotel, the cooking school and four guesthouses. The houses were already in place, spread around the grassy grounds, “but we’ll renovate them for people traveling in groups or with kids,” Cretella says. Details of the hotel décor are not yet settled, but Cretella has a vision for the restaurant.

“It’ll be kind of a Ralph Lauren, equestrian feel, comfy and gracious, with a few quirky elements thrown in,” he says. The other properties are likely to incorporate elements of comfy graciousness, too.

Overall, “I like the idea of a compound or campus feel,” Cretella continues. If that makes the Ryland project sound like a certain other ambitious New Jersey culinary destination planning eventual overnight accommodations—Natirar, in Peapack-Gladstone—it is and it isn’t.

“I think the thing we have in common is our aspiration to be at the top of the New Jersey dining scene,” he says. “But our two spaces are completely different.” The Natirar hotel will be housed in a grand stone mansion,  and the Ryland buildings will take their design cues from the original Ryland farmhouse.

The food will be different, too, says Bucco. “There’s a lot of similarities with me and chef David”—Natirar’s David C. Felton. “We’re both farm-to-table, and we source products with integrity. But I’m more founded in Mediterranean cooking, and he’s more global. In terms of refinement, I think we’ll be neck and neck, but we have our own goals and skill set. We’ll look at them as friendly competition.”

Bucco, of Matawan, is also competing with the formidable reputation of Shelton, which is why the former chef’s endorsement of the Cretellas’ vision, and of Bucco, means a lot. “Craig is always the smartest guy in the room,” says Cretella. “He’s completely brilliant.” 

Shelton returns the compliment. “The fact that I was working on a partnership with them should say everything. They’re wonderful people and also very good businesspeople,” he says. “All their staffs really adore them, too, which is a wonderful sign.” As for Bucco, “I feel very strongly about him. He’s a super guy, very hardworking and very talented, with great ethical values. I think he’s capable of great, great things.”

Whether Bucco will earn accolades depends not just on his talent, Shelton continues. “If you build the hotel and the catering facility and keep the restaurant small, then you’re positioning yourself as a four-star restaurant,” he says. Shelton has often said that the high prices charged by four-star restaurants are actually not so high when you consider the cost of running them with a commitment to the highest standards of food, service and decor. It’s hard for them to turn a profit, he says, without some subsidy or other profit center. Although the new Ryland may not shoot for world-class ranking, it can only help that the catering and hotel have a chance to be reliable moneymakers.

In late May, Cretella was confident that the permits for the non-restaurant businesses would go through, though he had not yet obtained them. The Cretellas are also counting on a smart wine list and cocktails made with honey and hydroponic herbs grown on the property to add to the Ryland’s bottom line—but not nearly as much as they once might have.

“The first time I met Craig, he was telling me an interesting story that a guy came in and bought two $3,000 bottles of wine and drank them by himself,” Cretella says. Given the economy, that is no longer likely to happen, he figures. Shelton agrees: “People don’t drink like that anymore,” he says.

In 2002, the Cretellas and their only child, Madeline—now a Monmouth University student—moved into the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in New York City. The Staten Island location could not have been more perfect: two blocks from the street where the couple grew up. Built in 1959, the house is a red-brick L with a lot of glass. “Floor-to-ceiling glass, with no window coverings,” Cretella says. The transparency and pedigree combined have brought the family plenty of exposure, not all of it welcome.

“Right in the middle of our neighborhood, which is completely residential, there’s a Tibetan art museum”—the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art—says Jeanne. “So people come and visit the museum, and they have nothing else to do, so they go around the corner to see the Frank Lloyd Wright house.  It’s amazing—you’ll look out the window and see 15, 20 people there. One time my daughter called me from the kitchen—‘Mom, there’s people out there standing on our patio!’”

“We get architectural students ringing the bell, too,” Cretella says. “I’ll let them in.”

He hopes the people of Hunterdon County, where the Ryland is located, will be as welcoming. So far, so good, he says. Town officials “have been unbelievably helpful. They really want to see the place reopened.” Experience tells him patrons will feel the same. Overall, he’s cautiously confident.

“You want to always go in being nervous and excited at the same time,” he says. “You gotta have that little sense that you can fail—it’s what keeps you on your toes.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent New Jersey Monthly contributor.

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