2006: Taste of the Tour

GREENWICH, CONN.

Jack Nicklaus came for the gorgonzola salad. Claude Harmon liked his steak medium rare and charred on the outside. Dave Marr always needed two breath mints after he ate the garlic bread.

Every PGA Tour stop has its favorite restaurants and watering holes. Manero’s, located on a sliver of land along the harbor here, was the place to be when the Tour came to nearby Westchester County, just north of New York City.

“Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus – half the field would be in there,” says Billy Farrell, the former pro at Stanwich Golf Club in Greenwich for 36 years.

The pros have their favorite stories about Manero’s. Nicklaus remembers the time his son, Jackie, then 4, had a piece of lobster lodged in his throat. Jackie started to turn blue and his eyes rolled back in his head. “Go get it!” ordered Phil Rodgers, the old pro and Nicklaus’ short-game coach. So Nicklaus slid his hand down his son’s throat and saved the day, only to turn around and find that son Steve had climbed on the table and was munching on his dad’s dinner.

Then there was the time Claude Harmon meant to tuck his napkin in his pants but he grabbed the tablecloth with it, taking half the dishes with him when he stood to go to the bathroom. Two years ago, while playing the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, David Frost, who operates his own winery, ventured down a rickety wooden ladder to explore the wine cellar.

And 10 years ago, when an elderly, stern-looking man summoned to his table the restaurant’s proprietor, Nick Manero Jr., nephew of 1936 U.S. Open champion Tony Manero.

“You don’t know me,” the customer said, “but your uncle spoiled my last chance to win a major and I’ll never forgive him for it.” And then Hall of Famer Harry Cooper winked.

Many of the pros stayed across the street at the Showboat Hotel for easy access. Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman first stayed there and dined nightly at Manero’s while teaming with Billy Buppert to win the prestigious Anderson Four-Ball amateur titles at Winged Foot Golf Club in 1958-59.

“They loved golf. Everyone in Manero’s played golf,” Beman remembers. “You couldn’t go to Mamaroneck, N.Y., and play Winged Foot and not go there. There was no second choice.”

Yet this week, when the Tour returns to Winged Foot for the U.S. Open, Manero’s isn’t even an option. After 62 years, the restaurant served its last steak on Feb. 26.

Manero’s was a real-life “Cheers” for golfers. Instead of Sam Malone, the former Red Sox pitcher, tending bar, there was Tony Manero, the restaurant’s namesake, holding court as maitre d’. His brother-in-law, Nick Manero Sr., was the lovable “Coach” figure, except with brains. The wait staff was more Italian than Carla Tortelli. Many of them carried golf bags and single-digit handicaps by day, then carried a tune singing “Happy Birthday” to customers by night. Now that it’s gone, those who used to frequent Manero’s feel the same sense of loss as when “Cheers” went off the air – without the comfort of endless reruns.

“I was planning to go there during the Open for old time’s sake,” says Butch Harmon.

Tony and Nick have both died. The Manero family sold the restaurant in 2003. Who can fault them? What once was tobacco road today is one of the country’s most desirable ZIP codes. Soon the restaurant will be demolished and waterfront condominiums will take its place.

And just like that, a landmark for golf aficionados will be gone.

Tony and Agnes, Nick’s sister, met in 1931 and were married 59 years. Coincidentally, they shared the same surname: Mainiero. But like his childhood friend, Gene Sarazen, whose name was changed from Eugenio Saraceni (it sounded more like a violin than a golfer), Tony’s name was simplified to Manero by the media.

“Everyone automatically thought Tony owned the restaurant, but that wasn’t the case. Nick did,” says Dick Manero, 66, Tony’s youngest son. “My dad was a draw. Everyone knew him and they would come to see him.”

In fact, Tony was pathologically shy, says his son. But he was fond of talking about golf and his demeanor brightened when a customer greeted him as “Champ.”

Nick Manero was a sharp businessman. He went to law school and was a legal secretary to New York mayor Fiorella LaGuardia. Nick was a cook during World War II, and when he came home he opened a restaurant, “The 19th Hole,” named in honor of Tony, below the family’s residence at 537 Steamboat Road. But Nick recognized that Tony’s golf success was good for business, so in 1945 he changed the name to Manero’s to cash in on the name of one of the area’s most popular sports figures.

With his silver hair tucked under his signature, oversized chef’s hat, eyes dancing with good humor behind his round glasses, Nick welcomed customers by name with a jolly comment. Sometimes he would borrow a line from the catchy signs adorning the wall, such as “Beautiful women eat steak to stay that way,” “What food these morsels be,” and one that had a tantalizing offer: “Free steak for life if you give birth here.”

An endless stream of large groups sat elbow to elbow in the bustling, rough-hewn restaurant. The décor was simple: paper placemats on Formica tables, with black-and-white golf photos hanging on the varnished wood walls.

“It was fashionably shabby,” Dick says with a wry smile and a chuckle. “Dated but lovable.”

Manero’s was known for its generous portions, perfect for a trencherman’s appetite and those with a disdain for cardiologists who preach moderation. In the 1970s, the filet mignon dinner, including an appetizer, garlic bread, fried onions, dessert and coffee, cost only $5.95.

Manero’s served upward of 1,100 dinners on a Saturday night. Those without reservations lined up out the door and around the corner, drinking martinis served in the shaker, while regulars often were escorted through the kitchen. There was always room for the pros, especially Tony’s old playing companions.

“The place would be packed and out of the kitchen would come a table for my dad (Claude, the ’48 Masters champ and longtime Winged Foot pro) and his guests,” Butch Harmon remembers. “Tony treated us like family.”

Garlic bread arrived with your drinks just after you were seated. These long slabs of Italian bread were saturated with garlic, well-buttered, and then broiled. One bite and your breath was lethal for the rest of the night.

Next came a big bowl of iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion topped with Manero’s famous gorgonzola dressing. Customers could find fish and chicken dishes on the menu, but if you came to Manero’s, you came to eat beef. The meat was aged at Manero’s old-fashioned butcher shop for up to 28 days and the crispy fried onion rings were the preferred complement. Dessert was an afterthought, although many customers saved room for the cherry Jell-O.

Dick, a busboy one summer before he went off to college, recalls waiting on Buster Crabbe, the Olympic swimmer turned actor, Johnny Carson and several golfers, most memorably George Bayer, whose hands, Dick recalls, were the size of a catcher’s mitt.

“Whenever they had a tournament in Westchester so many would come to Greenwich for meals,” Dick says. “My dad would be in his glory.”

Dick also serenaded his share of customers that summer. Some would come just to hear the singing waiters. Nick would pull out a pitch pipe, blow a note, and conduct.

“It was a small thing that cost nothing but it made people smile,” Dick says, “and the whole restaurant would stop eating to applaud.”

Nick’s motto was “always bring the children,” and dinners at Manero’s became family gatherings. Jack Whitaker, the television golf commentator, moved to Westchester in 1966 and remembers meeting Tony the first time he took his family to the restaurant. It became an annual rite to celebrate the birthday of his five children there.

Over the years, Manero’s expanded from 50 seats to more than 600. During its heyday, Manero’s became a regional institution with locations in New York City, Syosset and Hartsdale, N.Y., Rochelle Park, N.J., and Hallandale, Fla. Nick’s brother, Porky, owned another in Westport, Conn. Another Manero’s, operated by the Mahoneys, the Irish side of the family, remains open in Palm City, Fla.

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