Alan Meinster has served every governor starting from Brendan Byrne, and once stashed bags of Orange Zinger tea in his car so he would always have them ready for former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
What has he learned in three decades of power meals? “Republicans and Democrats enjoy being in the same room. But they like to be at least a couple tables away from each other,” Meinster says.
He and his eventual mother-in-law purchased the original Marsilio’s in Chambersburg in 1986, and turned it into a powerhouse known for superlative chicken cacciatore and personalized wine jugs.
Marsilio’s Restaurant closed in 2007, but after a few years of catering, Meinster and his wife, Denise, decided to open Marsilio’s Kitchen in Ewing in 2011. Their customers – who included the state’s power elite – were thrilled to return, and not shy about their culinary expectations.
“We wanted to bring fresh ideas to the menu,” Meinster said. “And the customers fought us. They wanted lasagna and fettucine alfredo and, of course, chicken cacciatore and veal parmigiana….They didn’t want short ribs.”
“So we were very quick to just give our customers whatever they wanted. Listening is one of the most important things in our business.”
This philosophy extends not only to his food, but also the dynamics of his dining room. It took years, he said, but eventually he began to treat it “a little like a chess table,” deftly seating those having business conversations away from others who might have a vested interest in those talks.
“Both he and Denise are incredibly sensitive to that,” said top Trenton lobbyist Sonia Delgado, who traces this back to the 1980s. “You could see him scanning the room and knowing when to offer extra privacy. Or knowing when to engage a diner, so as to steer them away from a conversation at another table.”
This judiciousness only enhanced the social, see-and-be-seen atmosphere that continues today at Marsilio’s Kitchen.
Michael Egenton, the executive vice president, government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, dines there three or four times a month. “It’s sort of like ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name. I walk in, everyone knows me.” Egenton enjoys the ability to ask for a rush on his lunch or to tell the staff to take their time.
And while Egenton regularly orders the cacciatore, rigatoni with chicken and vodka sauce, and caesar salad with salmon, he often relishes ordering off-menu. “I know the cook…if I’m having a bad day, he’ll make me a ravioli with white cream sauce and roasted garlic.”
Attorney and Hopewell mayor Paul Anzano can often be found ordering the cacciatore and the artichoke hearts with lemon – after he’s able to sit down, that is. It often takes him 10 minutes to greet everyone he knows.
““The food is good quality,” Anzano says, “and it’s easier to do business over a good meal than it is to do business over a meal that may not be so good. You know you what you can recommend to someone who’s never been there before.”
Delgado, of the Princeton Public Affairs lobbying firm, has a long list of regular orders that include the seafood and chopped salads, the veal chop, and peanut butter ice cream. She says Meinster has a long history of knowing what his customers want – sometimes before they themselves know. She recalls spending one dinner lamenting that her cat had knocked down her Christmas tree and destroyed all of her ornaments, including some family heirlooms.
“I was really upset,” she said. “Three days later, I come home to boxes of ornaments for my tree” that the Meinsters had sent her.
Says Meinster: “Understanding a customer’s needs and expectations are paramount – and exceeding their expectations.” He only wishes he could give more customers what they really want: a corner table. “And that’s socially, too. I wish we had a restaurant of all corners. And all of the tables were round.”
But that doesn’t stop him from encouraging customers to tell his staff as much about their meal as possible. Of course, he wants to know if someone is dining with the governor or the lieutenant governor, not because this is unusual for him, but so that he can have extra tables nearby for their protection staff.
He also jokes that not all special occasions are created equal. “There’s a difference between a 50th anniversary, and ‘it’s our anniversary’…..If you tell us it’s your 50th anniversary, there should be a proclamation from the president of the United States waiting for you at Marsilio’s.”
But, he jokes, If “they say three (years); I’ll say to myself, ‘I’ve got you beat.’”
Marsilio’s Kitchen: 71 W. Upper Ferry Road, Ewing, 609-882-8300, marsilioskitchen.com