For an ex-corporate medical device executive without a background in hospitality, Joachim “Kim” Costagliola can run a restaurant. After retiring from a global medical device manufacturer more than 15 years ago, Costagliola had visions of a quiet life at home in Bergen County, New Jersey. But one night out for cocktails and dinner with his friend and (who also happens to be a real estate mogul) quickly turned him into a restaurateur.
“In 2008, I bought the restaurant without five minutes’ experience in the hospitality business, at the suggestion of my dinner mates.” The rest of the story is an incredible, 14-year journey that brings us to today.
Hearing the story, I had no idea whether to laugh, cry, or call BS. Moving on, I quickly understood that this was no joke. Kim called his general manager (or better yet, maître d’) over. Along with Kim, Steven Borchers explained that their collective goal is to provide food and customer service so astounding that guests will make a new reservation directly after finishing dinner and dessert at Esty Street in Park Ridge, NJ.
If you know anything about working in hospitality, it’s an understatement to say this goal is a tall order. Most restaurant owners are simply happy to get people in and out the door without any hysterics or some sort of complaint. Instead, Esty Street’s mission statement leaves zero room for error, no “off” nights, and certainly no overcooked steaks.
After emphasizing that Esty Street was no steakhouse, Kim proceeded to tell me about the quality cuts of meat on his restaurant’s menu.
“We’ve become known for four bone-in cuts of meat that are just over the top,” said Costagliola. “We serve a center cut, the bone-in filet, a bone-in NY strip; a dry-aged, bone-in ribeye; and a 27-day, wet-aged 40-oz tomahawk on an astonishing 18-inch bone. These are now staples of our restaurant. They never change.”
At one point, another popular dish met the chopping block, and the Esty Street team couldn’t believe the feedback. Steve, Esty Street’s GM, who hails from Montvale, NJ, and is a 12-year Esty Street veteran, gave me the full rundown.
“A while ago we changed our Chilean sea bass to halibut,” he recalls. “We underestimated what our guests’ reaction to this change would be. People refused to come back until we put the sea bass back on our menu. So, in keeping with our mantra, ‘the customer is always right,’ the Chilean sea bass, pan-seared in a citrus beurre blanc sauce, served over seasonal vegetables and plated with a vegetable and shrimp risotto is back on our menu. Once the word got out, our phone was ringing off the hook. It is our most popular entrée.”
Sea bass aside, most of Esty Street’s menu is subject to change seasonally. And right now, many Esty Street guests are choosing the lobster Caesar salad, the umami special, or the tuna tartare, followed by a dessert like the cocotufo.
“Our signature lobster Caesar salad is not traditional,” explained Borchers. “It’s served with roasted peppers, candied pecans, avocado, half of a fresh-shucked lobster, and some crispy bacon for a smoky, crunchy taste.”
Others enjoy Esty Street’s tuna tartare, served with sushi-grade tuna, avocado, sriracha aioli, lime miso vinaigrette, black garlic, and wasabi caviar.
Esty’s umami special is a salad of diced Ora King salmon, colossal crab meat, and seaweed in a wonton bowl. The bowl is surrounded with tuna sashimi and spot prawns, and it’s garnished with mango chutney, wasabi caviar, soy, and fresh ginger.
If the steaks, seafood, and fresh fish on the menu aren’t enough, the restaurant has some interestingly unique desserts that can cap a great meal.
“When I was a kid, Mounds was my favorite candy bar. There was nothing better as far as I was concerned. I loved it so much.” smiled Kim. “Years ago, I told this same thing to our chef at the time. A couple days later he walked into the dining room with a dessert — hailing it as his recreation of a Mounds bar.”
The cocotufo is homemade coconut ice cream, homemade coconut brittle frozen into a ball and held together by a magic chocolate shell. “We pour the magic shell table-side as our guests watch it harden over the ball of coconut ice cream,” said Costagliola. “It’s a play on coconut and tartufo and is our most sought-after dessert.”
I spoke with Kim and Steve near the end of 2022. They told me about their epic Christmas party, which brought families together for great food, cold drinks, and smiles galore. Their description of the party sounded not only fun, but inviting. I could only imagine this vibe has made its way into their restaurant work and ongoing goals toward great customer service.
“We truly believe the customer is always right,” said Costagliola. “Fourteen years later, we’ve survived COVID and kept the vision I had of an elegant place for guests to sit and enjoy themselves. When someone comes to dine, they can sit — I don’t rush people out. I teach my staff that the customer is our guest. It’s if I had invited you to my home to dine with me”.
Anyone who has ever worked in restaurants understands that having one great day or even one great year does not make a great restaurant. Every day brings new challenges and provides another opportunity for a restaurant to prove its worth, or not.
“There are a lot of restaurants with great food and menus,” Kim said. “A lot of them with great waitstaffs, and great ambiance. What Steve and I have tried to do is weave these three things together to create the ultimate guest experience. It’s consistency, day after day, that keeps guests coming back.”
Esty Street History
While Costagliola has owned the restaurant for almost 15 years, the space goes way back. In the 1920s, Park Ridge, NJ, was mostly farmland. The building now known as Esty Street used to be a cafeteria and boarding house for migrant workers during the picking season.
As the farms moved out and neighborhoods moved in, one couple bought the place and turned it into a packaged goods and red sauce Italian restaurant called Benovies. Here guests could get a bite to eat, bring home some takeout, enjoy a few libations, grab some pizza, play shuffleboard, and hang out. It was a real all-in-one experience. Costagliola admitted he hung out here in the late ’60s with friends. He had no idea then that he would one day own the place.
Then in the late 1980s, a local restaurant owner bought the place from the Benovies. He turned it into Time Out, a shot and beer place.
A few years later, in the early ’90s, a Cornell University graduate bought Time Out and renamed it Esty Street, after the street he had lived on in Ithaca.
What’s Old Is New Again
When Costagliola was looking for his restaurant, Esty Street really was not on his radar to buy, but he frequented the place often. After 36 years with a corporate medical device company, he retired at 55. He was over retirement in less than a year.
“I wanted to own a restaurant since I was a little kid,” said Costagliola. “It’s probably due to my Sicilian upbringing and all our large gatherings when I was young. I always remember all of us being so happy when we were out to dinner or lunch. Then I recalled my medical device experiences. I was never educated in the field but was successful. So why couldn’t I do the same with food?”
At first, Costagliola kept the restaurant in place. He recalled people’s comments: Oh, another rich guy who thinks he can manage a restaurant? Three weeks into his endeavor, he realized there had to be a change or else he would be out of business just like some people were betting on.
“It was a place to eat — not dine. What the area needed was a unique dining experience. The circa-1960s dining room got a remodel with a design firm,” said Costagliola. “I wanted to have a Manhattan-like restaurant right here in Park Ridge. I thought it could be reminiscent of a 1950s supper club — a library corner with books, a 60-person seating arrangement, and a cozy bar complete with a fireplace.”
By Valentine’s Day 2009, Costagliola reopened, according to his vision: A restaurant with great food that was also comfortable enough to facilitate a warm, memorable experience. He implemented a new kitchen, wait-, and barstaff, as well as a New York-style menu.
“I’ve been labeled as uber confident — nothing shakes me,” said Costagliola. “I am patient and don’t get upset easily. And I don’t make knee-jerk decisions. I let plans run their course before I say whether [something] is working or not. I’ve gotten this far and I’m 70 years old. I plan on being around for another 70.”
86 Spring Valley Road
Park Ridge, NJ