After more than five decades in the restaurant business, Donny Williams is ready to let someone else cook dinner.
The longtime Schenectady restaurateur plans to forgo his usual 16-hour shifts and he’s prepared to enjoy a holiday with his family instead of tending to business at Brandon’s Ritz Terrace. But he still can’t get used to the idea of leaving the scores of regular customers that fill his dining room and bar each day.
“It’s going to be tough,” he admitted, as a crowd of his lunch regulars gathered at the bar Friday. “I’ve got the best customers here from all walks of life.”
Williams, 73, will close Brandon’s and auction off the restaurant’s equipment after 14 years of service on Van Vranken Avenue. More importantly, he’ll close the book on a distinguished 53-year career as the chef and owner of more than a half-dozen restaurants that operated in the city.
The combination of the changing neighborhood and slumping economy prompted Williams to put the restaurant on the market last year. But when his only serious buyer backed out of the deal, he decided it was time to toss in his apron.
“There comes a time,” he said with a sigh. “And I’m just getting tired.”
For Williams, cooking was an ingrained talent. He first started cooking with his father, a chef trained in traditional German cuisine, and he received some culinary training in Munich. For years, he worked as the chef at the former Tradewinds restaurant in Saratoga Springs. But his true claim to fame was the success he experienced with a string of restaurants in Schenectady.
Brandon’s was the end of a list of restaurants where Williams cooked. He operated the Tavern and the Viking on State Street, the Paramount on Albany Street, the Erie Barge on Erie Boulevard and the Executive Suite, across from City Hall.
Williams first opened Brandon’s on State Street in 1993 and met with almost instant success. Less than two years after opening, he decided to move the business to the much larger Ritz Terrace.
The Ritz Terrace and Brandon’s were a perfect fit for Williams, who always had a knack for attracting a faithful following of diners. On Van Vranken, his business flourished with an eclectic crowd of neighborhood diners and area businesspeople, some of whom made it an enduring tradition to stop in for lunch or a Friday afternoon cocktail.
But running a successful restaurant can take its toll. Williams’ day often begins with cleaning the restaurant in the morning and moves into prepping food in the afternoon; by evening, he’s either tending bar or minding the kitchen, depending on the circumstances each day brings.
“If somebody doesn’t show up, you have to do it yourself,” he said. “That happens a lot.”
And his regular customers recognize his efforts. By noon Friday, the U-shaped bar at Brandon’s was filled to capacity with patrons who waved to Williams as he passed by.
Linda Matt, a Niskayuna real estate agent, grabbed an iced tea and a corner seat with a group of regular customers. They spent the afternoon musing about where they could find a good lunch in Schenectady after Brandon’s closes.
“We’re deciding where we’re going to go, but we’re just not sure,” said Matt, who has come to the eatery almost every Friday since it opened on Van Vranken. “Everybody here is friends and everybody knows each other.”
George Melbur was equally dismayed by the loss of what he described as a neighborhood restaurant. He said watching Williams retire this spring would be a bittersweet moment.
“He’s a class act and it’s a class act restaurant,” he said.
Cheryl Carney, a bartender who has worked at Brandon’s since it moved to Van Vranken, couldn’t envision the restaurant without the owner at the helm. Even if the restaurant was sold to a new operator, she planned on leaving once he retired.
“It’s sad,” she said. “But it’s time for him to retire.”