Three decades ago, two freshly minted Rutgers University grads liked New Brunswick so much that they decided to stick around.
While bartending at the Frog and the Peach in town, Francis Schott and Mark Pascal began exploring the idea of opening their own place together. In 1992, they opened Stage Left: An American Café. The name refers to the restaurant’s position relative to the State Theater next door.
Five years ago, Schott and Pascal changed the name to Stage Left Steak to highlight the new focus on Prime Angus steaks and the applewood-burning grill they are prepared on. Now their restaurant is one of New Jersey Monthly’s 20 best steakhouses.
“It’s a tough business,” Pascal says. “Having someone to share a sometimes 100-hour week with is really gratifying.”
In their 30 years of business, Pascal and Schott have managed Stage Left and opened two other ventures: Stage Left Wine Shop (featuring wines from small producers and shipping them across the country) and the Italian restaurant Catherine Lombardi (an homage to Pascal’s Italian grandmother), located one flight above Stage Left.
Schott and Pascal are celebrating their anniversary this month with special events that touch on their roots.
Growing up, did either of you plan to own your own business one day?
Mark Pascal: My father was an entrepreneur and owned a couple of his own companies during his life. I always kind of knew I wanted to own my own business, but it wasn’t until I got into the restaurant business to pay for college that I realized how much I love it.
Francis Schott: I never thought I’d open my own business, but when I worked at the Frog and the Peach I saw a world of things I really liked. Mark and I got to talking and said when we get older we will open our own restaurant. The next morning, I called Mark and said, ‘We just made a plan to do what we want to do in 10-15 years. Let’s do it now.’
What was it like opening Stage Left?
Pascal: It was super exhilarating opening that first day. We were 26 years old and didn’t have very much money, and we had somewhere from 80-to-100 friends and family pitch in to help us build the place.
Schott: When we first opened, it was a very different restaurant called Stage Left: An American Café. Now, everyone does farm-to-table or seasonal-driven, but that wasn’t exactly what restaurants were doing back in ‘92. We formed a lot of relationships with local farmers and were able to use the highest-quality ingredients. We became a steak house on our 25th anniversary five years ago because we felt really that’s where the market was going. And that’s what New Brunswick wanted and needed.
What are some of your favorite things about the restaurant?
Pascal: One of our most important decisions in opening was the wood-burning grill. We were building and managing a fire every day instead of having a grill set to a certain temperature. New Jersey has since changed its statutes so you can no longer have a wood-burning grill, but we were grandfathered in. We have the ability to cook on applewood which isn’t a possibility for other restaurants in NJ. It’s a big advantage for us.
When did the Stage Left Wine Shop open?
Schott: We always focused on wines from small producers that were a little less well-known. We began doing wine dinners and sold the wines afterward because we were our own liquor store. In 2000, we decided to open a physical store rather than just sell packaged wines after dinners. About two years before the pandemic, we opened an online wine shop, which has been very successful. It’s not the usual wines you see in liquor stores.
What’s the story behind Catherine Lombardi?
Pascal: A lot of restaurant equipment and supply auctions were in Brooklyn, so whenever we were there we would stop in to say hello to my grandmother. She was always cooking. On the third or fourth time visiting, I explained to Francis that during the week she was always cooking some portion of the Sunday meal. As I got older, I realized how fortunate I was to get to go to grandma’s house 40 Sundays a year where the whole family gets together.
Francis said, ‘You and your family get to eat like this two or three days a week. The rest of us don’t get to eat like this.’ The opportunity came to open Catherine Lombardi in 2005, named after my grandmother, when the Chinese restaurant above us left.
What are you doing to celebrate your 30th anniversary?
Schott: Our anniversary is May 22, and on the Friday before we are doing a walk-around wine tasting and dinner with our friend Harmon Skurnik. Skurnik Wines is one of the most important wine importers of small producers in the country. When we first opened, they were our most important supplier of wine. One of the owners, Harmon, is going to come do a wine dinner with us, which is going to be great.
Dale DeGroff single-handedly started the cocktail revolution, and he helped us with our cocktail program back in ‘92. On Sunday the 22nd, we are going to have a cocktail party with him and look at all the inventive cocktails of the last 35 years.
What has been your favorite part of running a restaurant together?
Pascal: Francis is my best friend. Having a business with your best friend is great, especially to have someone to bounce ideas off of. We’re better friends than we were 30 years ago and there is a lot of pride in that.
Schott: We were able to make a business out of doing the things we love to do. It’s crazy, right? Another thing is the long-term relationships we have made with customers and the community. It’s a tremendous community, and the whole state should know what a jewel we have in New Brunswick.Click here to leave a comment