Restaurant industry legend Stillman is the founder of T.G.I. Friday's and Smith & Wollensky. In 2007, he sold his publicly-traded dining empire to Nick Valenti and Joachim Splichal of the Patina Restaurant Group.
A onetime perfume salesman, Stillman started the first TGIF's on the Upper East Side in 1965 with a $5,000 loan from his mother and a pretty straightforward motive: "The pill had just been invented and I wanted to meet girls." Stillman established 12 more TGIF's before selling the chain in 1975. He then turned his attention to launching a steakhouse, teaming up with college pals Ben Benson and Ernie Kalman to found Smith & Wollensky in 1977, pulling the two names out of the phone book late one night.
While the steakhouse didn't earn great reviews—Mimi Sheraton of the Times didn't give it a single star—customers were pleased, and over the years Smith & Wollensky sprouted close to a dozen locations across the country. Stillman went on to open a number of other restaurants, including Maloney & Porcelli, Park Avenue Café, the Post House, Cité, and, most recently, Quality Meats.
After a protracted bidding war that also involved Landry's Restaurants, in 2007 Smith & Wollensky was acquired by Nick Valenti and Joachim Splichal's Patina Restaurant Group, in partnership with a Boston-based private equity fund, for close to $100 million. The deal stipulated that Stillman buy back Park Avenue Café and Quality Meats, as well as manage Smith & Wollensky's New York-based properties (with the exception of Cité, which closed in April 2007). Stillman and his son, Michael, have since unveiled a new premise for the spot once known as Park Avenue Café: The protean eatery's name—along with its menu and décor—now changes with the season.
Stillman and his wife, Donna, live on East 57th Street. The couple's son, Michael, serves as president of Stillman's new company, Fourth Wall Restaurants. They also have an expansive 15-acre property in Sagaponack, which Stillman put the market for $65 million in late 2006.