Restaurant Owners of Worcester County
Worcester County is exceptional in many arenas ~ education, research, to name but two ~ but its diverse selection of restaurants, especially those that we have come to count on throughout the decades to welcome us with open arms, prepare us meals that please our palates, and bring us together with family and friends may just make dining its number one attraction. This region is bursting with every sort of cuisine imaginable ~ and behind the décor, menus, flavors, and knowledgeable staff are individuals who job…whose passion…it is to make sure that our dining experiences are inviting, flavorful, and memorable
Join us in getting better acquainted with five local restaurant owners who oversee the dining establishments that have long been part of the fabric of our lives here in Worcester. Meet Stanley Nicas of The Castle Restaurant, Ignatius Chang of Nancy Chang, Chris Liasos of Webster House, Billy Brady of Sonoma, Donna of The Monument Grille/Blue Marlin, and maybe Jim from Tweeds.
Stanley Nicas of The Castle Restaurant
By Ellen O’Connor
Stanley Nicas, whose family has owned and operated the Castle Restaurant in Leicester since 1950, was pretty much destined to be in the food business.
“My father was a chef in the old country,” said Nicas, referring to the family’s homeland of Greece. Nicas was born here in the United States, in Milford to be precise, but when he was six months old, the family returned to Greece, settling in the north, which is part of Albania.
In 1932, Nicas turned 12 and began his apprenticeship in cooking, working in such notable culinary cities as Paris and Rome, as well as in his native country. World War II interrupted his training on two occasions. Mussolini invaded Albania, prompting Nicas to return to the States. After a time in New York City, he landed in Worcester at the old Eden Gardens on Franklin Street, where you could always get a good steak and hobnob with thirsty Worcester newspaper reporters.
Pearl Harbor then interrupted his time at the Eden. He enlisted in the Navy and shipped out to the South Pacific aboard the USS Bunker Hill. While on board, a buddy taught him English, adding to his already existing repertoire of Italian and French.
Coming back from the war, he wanted to enter the seminary, but the needs of the family back in Europe prompted him to get going in the restaurant business. He and another sailor bought the White House restaurant on Park Avenue and a few years later, he and his wife bought the Castle.
When Nicas bought the Castle, it was a very small restaurant that specialized in sandwiches and small dinners and catered to the ice cream crowd.
“My wife and I added to the menu and to the building,” he said, certainly downplaying the tremendous change the couple brought about in the establishment. “We started with 45 seats and now we can sit about 400.”
The Castle has a well-deserved reputation as the place to go for an unforgettable gourmet dining experience. In 1981, it was chosen as one of the best restaurants in the country. Its wine cellar is viewed as equally superb. Of course, the Castle is also a destination for the casual dining experience. It has two dining rooms ~ the Camelot room, which has a decidedly international menu, and the Crusader room, which focuses more on American fare.
The business is nothing short of a family enterprise. In addition to Stanley and his wife, Helen, who passed away five years ago, the Nicas children are all involved, as are spouses and grandchildren.
James Nicas, one of Stanley’s sons, is a vital part of the Castle machinery. He always has been a part of his parents’ business ~ even as a baby.
“People tell me, although I don’t remember this, that my crib and playpen were next to the [restaurant] compressor,” he said. “To this day the whirring sound of a compressor is very soothing to me. It probably is true because when we were babies, we were always there.”
He and his siblings all had to peel and chop the vegetables ~ the onions, the carrots and the potatoes ~ before they could go out and play. In short, the kids grew up in the business and with the business.
Years after founding the Castle, Stanley is still in the kitchen, a place that he loves, teaching young chefs the secrets of success. He would have it no other way.
Chris Liazos of Webster House Moves On
By Ellen O’Connor
Chris Liazos, the longtime owner of the Webster House Restaurant with his wife, Helen, started in the hospitality business by happenstance and in the most ordinary of jobs ~ as a dishwasher.
“It was really by accident,” recalled Liazos, who is about to retire from the business that became his life’s vocation. He was working in a shop and there was a strike. A man who owned a small restaurant needed to replace his dishwasher and so Liazos signed on, setting his future in stone.
“I did different jobs and I enjoyed the work,” he said. Here in Worcester, he worked for a restaurant chain for several years, managing the Tea Room in the old Denholm’s department store. He worked for the same chain in Providence and two towns in Pennsylvania. In 1970, he came back to Worcester and ~ six years later ~ he and his wife bought the Webster House with a partner. In 1986, the partner left, making the husband and wife the sole owners of the well-known and well-loved eatery.
“I enjoy working with people and I love food,” said Liazos, explaining the reasons why he made restaurants his life. “It really is a combination of the two things. In the hospitality business, you have to love to please your guests.”
The Webster House has a lot of regulars, so Liazos obviously succeeded at his goal of making his guests happy and pleasantly full. And the wine dinners, where the meal and the wine are specially chosen, have certainly helped in that regard. In July, an all-seafood menu was paired with a variety of sparkling wines. The dinners are quite the hit among the area’s food and wine connoisseurs.
As successful and as fun as the restaurant business has been for Liazos and his wife, it is time to move on. They are planning to retire and hope to sell the Webster House, possibly to one of their own employees.
While Liazos will miss the business, he is looking forward to doing other things that he loves, such as spending time with his family, his grandchildren, and reading some good books.
Donna Balletta of The Monument Grill in Leominster
By Christine R. Walsh
Rich, red brick walls and dark mahogany wood ~ softly accented with low lighting ~ create a comfortable ambiance as you enter The Monument Grill in Leominster. The warm and welcoming mood and décor are only the beginning of a wonderful dining experience created and overseen by Monument’s owner, Donna Balletta.
Balletta, 55, opened the restaurant 11 years ago with her husband. She had started working as a bus girl around age 14, went on to become a server, then finally a manager. After spending all of her life in the business, it only seemed organic for her to make the move to owner.
“Anyone who’s ever worked in restaurants knows that the business gets into your blood,” Balletta laughs.
Balletta has seen the best and the worst of bosses during her career ~ she’s seen managers who have cursed blue streaks, thrown pans at their employees and basically made Gordon Ramsey of “Hell’s Kitchen” fame look like a saint with a spatula. All of Balletta’s experiences have shown her what will lead The Monument Grill to further success.
“Fresh food is the most important,” Balletta says. “Fresh ingredients and a consistent menu bring the customers back. And we have some great comfort food here.”
According to Balletta, customers rave about the Atlantic Salmon Roast. It’s a horseradish and mustard encrusted salmon fillet topped with roasted red onion, sun dried tomato salsa, and capers. This beautiful fish is served with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. As does every good restaurant owner, Ballette keeps an ear to the ground when it comes to listening about the dishes her customers prefer ~ and even suggestions they make for what they might like to see on the menu.
The Monument Grill, although it has quite a following for its seafood fare, is best known for its steaks. Try the Steak au Poivre ~12 ounces of delicious New York Sirloin prepared with crushed peppercorns, pan seared and topped with a Cognac cream sauce. Mashed potatoes and asparagus provide the starch, the veggies and create a satiated diner.
The Monument Grill has a full bar with a number of shining stars on the drink menu. What would Balletta herself recommend? Definitely the Double Godiva martini, with so much delectable sweetness, even the biggest chocoholic will be happy.
After a great meal and a martini that will leave you feeling good, Balletta suggests that you turn your attention to the dessert menu. Giggle to yourself as you order a Banana Rum Napoleon – a tropical dessert made of bananas and layers of yummy dough and sticky goodness.
Sunday mornings at The Monument Grill bring a brunch with great food and a Bloody Martini bar with a variety of house-infused vodkas. Friday and Saturday nights feature live music – everything from smooth jazz to contemporary – and further add to the Grill’s great vibe. Balletta’s goal ~ which she has achieved in spades ~ was to create a true dining experience for all the senses, not just a bunch of tables and chairs and ordinary food. The extra touches are her way of expressing her appreciation for the clientele.
Even though the ambiance and many of the menu options might lead one to believe The Monument Grill should be reserved for special occasions, Balletta feels the restaurant should not be pigeon-holed. The fare is affordable and family members of all ages will enjoy themselves. “We’re not a destination restaurant,” she says, “You can just walk in here on a Saturday night and have a beer and some burgers and some fries.”
Salmon, steaks, burgers, and fries aside, Balletta does admit to having a personal menu favorite. “It’s the ribs,” Balletta admits. “They’re my favorite. The meat falls right off the bone.”
The Monument Grill
14 Monument Square
Leominster, (978) 537-4466
Jim Donoghue of Tweeds
By Cristal Steuer
“The restaurant industry is forever changing, every time I think I could write a book there is another chapter.” ~ Owner Jim Donoghue
Jim Donoghue opened Tweed’s in November 1979; it was the first pub-style restaurant in Worcester.
The restaurant, which touts the tagline “What a Pub Should Be,” seats about 150 patrons among the bar area, restaurant, function room and outdoor patio, and has 45 full and part-time employees.
Tweed’s offers everything from seafood to steak to pasta to fajitas. “Our fresh lobsters and steamed clams, which we serve year round, are the restaurant’s and my favorite dish,” says Donoghue.
Donoghue, who lives in West Boylston, received his B.A. from Boston College and his M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “After graduate school I was the manager of the newly opened Rathskellar on the campus at Boston College,” explains Donoghue. “The first restaurant I owned was a seasonal breakfast and lunch place on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Before breaking into the restaurant industry, he was the Economic Development Director of the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce.
How have things changed in the industry since ’79? “There is a lot more competition in my market segment,” he explains. “There is much more interest in food.”
Tweeds’ menu has a wide selection of items and prices ranging the baked fisherman’s feast to a cheeseburger in paradise. Donoghue is thinking of his customers in this tough economy. From 4 – 6pm Monday through Friday, he offers half price appetizers, early bird specials for $7.99 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., and a Lunch Club for frequent patrons (if you buy seven lunches, the eight one is free). “We are very fortunate to have a lot of great regular customers who have become friends,” says Donoghue.
The public’s biggest misconception, though? “The public thinks there is much more profit in the industry than there actually is,” he explains.
Donoghue grew up in a two family home in Brighton, Mass. The youngest of five children, his parents were Irish immigrants. He has been married to his wife Denise for 31 years, together they have two children, Seamus and Jessica.
In 10 years, Donoghue sees himself doing exactly what he is doing now. “I have a great deal of freedom since I have many loyal and long standing managers and employees,” he says.
Does this restaurant owner cook when he gets home? “Most of my cooking at home is limited to the outdoor grill,” he says.
Whether you want a romantic dinner for two or a seat at the bar to watch the Sox, Tweed’s has something to satisfy every need ~ and their menu can satisfy every craving, all thank to Jim Donoghue and his team.
231 Grove Street, Worcester (508) 755-8047
Ignatius Chang of Nancy Chang
By Ellen O’Connor
Ignatius Chang, who owns Nancy Chang restaurant on Chandler Street in Worcester, was a college student and part-time bartender in Taipei City, Taiwan, when he realized the restaurant business was for him.
Upon graduation, he began working as an assistant manager in a Taipei hotel restaurant that catered to American tourists. From there, he went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, honing his restaurant chops in a private club for about six months.
Eventually, Chang headed to the United States.
“I came to America a long time ago,” he said.
Upon his arrival in the early 1970s, he worked at the old Fox Lounge in Westborough, a place that became notable for, among other offerings, its open-faced steak sandwiches. He worked there for a few years and then decided to take a break from the food business ~ so he opened up a jewelry store.
However, the food service bug still had him. About 20 years ago, he opened up Nancy Chang, which focuses on healthy Asian cuisine. Initially located in West Boylston, it has been in its current Chandler Street location for 13 years.
Chang’s restaurant initially offered the usual version of the kind of Chinese food that Americans favor ~ heavy on fat and preservatives. However, a health scare that Chang suffered 12 years ago, which resulted in coronary artery bypass surgery, prompted a re-thinking of that philosophy.
“We changed the menu,” he said, explaining that saturated fats and oils have been cut out of the recipes, as well as the notorious preservative MSG. These changes bring the food served at Nancy Chang more in line with the food that people eat in China, said Chang, where obesity is not the problem it is here in the United States. Four or five years ago, Nancy Chang also began offering a gluten-free menu for people who cannot eat wheat. It recently added another health-oriented menu and now serves vegan food.
“People have changed the page,” said Chang, noting that initially his business suffered a bit, but with more education about healthy eating, his menu change has become a positive. “They don’t want fast food. They don’t want the heavy stuff. It is changing this way all over the world.”
Needless to say, the healthful change has drawn raves from the medical community ~ and has helped his catering business, which counts local hospitals among its customers. His catering business handles some big ticket events, too. Recently, it provided food for 355 people at Mechanics Hall.
“Everything we serve is fresh and healthy,” he said. “That is why we are able to keep our reputation. The food is everything.”
With more than 40 years in the restaurant business under his belt, Chang has no plans to relax.
“My kids are grown and in New York,” he said. “If I retired, the problem is there is not much to do. I think I will be around for a while.”
Bill Brady of Sonoma Restaurant
By Cristal Steuer
“Sometimes I think this industry chooses you, not the other way around,” explains Bill Brady, owner of Sonoma Restaurant in Princeton, Mass. “I started in the restaurant business at the age of 13 as a dishwasher and never left the kitchen.”
A Leominster native, Brady received his B.A. in food service management from Fitchburg State, and then earned a culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales College.
After college, he left for the big city to become an executive sous chef at World Yacht cruises in New York City, worked as an executive chef at Courtney’s Long Wharf in Newport, Rhode Island, and even did a stint at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
Brady came back to the area and worked at the Fay Club in Fitchburg and then decided to teach culinary arts at Montachusett Regional High School.
In 1996 he opened Sonoma, which seats about 70 people. The menu boasts the likes of Roasted Rack of Lamb Persillade (the only dish that has been on the menu since its opening), Grilled Long Island Duck Breast and Seafood and Saffron en Brodo. When asked which dish was his favorite, Brady replies, “Our menu is changing constantly ~ it’s like asking who my favorite child is…”
The menu changes every 10-12 weeks, and Sonoma always offers nightly features.
With a staff of eight, a top-notch gourmet menu, and an extensive wine list, Brady has been on Boston’s Phantom Gourmet and NECN’s TV Diner, has graced the pages of Gourmet magazine’s exceptional dining column, and has been awarded the DiRONA (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) Award.
How is Sonoma holding up in a down economy? “The only constant in this industry is change,” says Bill. “Malcolm Forbes once said to never discount a quality product, although we do offer prix fixe wine dinners from time to time.”
What’s a day in the life like for Brady? “A common misconception about the industry is that anyone can do it,” says Brady. He starts his day at a morning meeting with his executive chef, plans the menu, figures out purchasing and scheduling logistics, checks in to make sure their off-premise catering division is all set for the day, then is off to meetings with prospective clients, wine salesmen, and advertisers. When he gets back, it is time to get ready in the kitchen ~ food preparation, staff training, and dinner service. After all of Sonoma’s customers have enjoyed their dinners and the restaurant is cleaned up, Brady and his staff can call it a day.
All that hard work has its rewards, though. “We have lots and lots of regulars, they come in as strangers and leave as friends,” Brady says proudly.
Sonoma is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. For more information visit: