Then in 1984, at the age of 27, he was made the general manager of an establishment that had a growing reputation. Nowadays, he oversees the work of 200 employees in what is perhaps the busiest high-end restaurant in the United States.
Hart is maintaining a family tradition in the hospitality trade. His grandmother, who set out alone from the family farm in Cahirsiveen, Co. Kerry, at age 16, spent 40 years working as a chambermaid in Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel.
Hart himself got his first taste in the business when at 15 he worked a summer job at her brother’s, his great uncle’s, establishment in the Catskills named O’Shea’s Irish Center.
“I liked it right away,” he said.
But it was when he arrived in the basement at Smith & Wollensky he knew he’d found a career.
Though the company has expanded to 10 other American cities, the Midtown Manhattan flagship has retained the atmosphere of a family-run business.
“When you come in here, you feel it’s more of a mom and pop place, as opposed to a big restaurant that’s part of a big corporation,” he said.
Some of the original customers, Hart said, “were of a certain age. Now we’re taking care of their children, and even their children’s children.
“Some come once a year, when they’re in New York. Some come in once a week. Some come three or four times a week.”
In its first years, Smith & Wollensky expanded from one to two floors.
“We went from being a very slow and not a busy store to being the highest-grossing restaurant in the country,” Hart said.
“We’re not cheap; we’re an expensive place,” he said, but added that people come back for the friendly service as much as for the quality of the food and drink.
It helps that the chef has been at Smith & Wollensky since it opened, while six cooks have there been there more than 20 years.
“Three managers have been here since the very beginning,” Hart said, as have several of the waiters.
“For the waiters, it’s their profession. They’re not aspiring actors,” said County Tyrone native Pat Colton, who after just 17 years is a relative newcomer to the Midtown business.
Three years into his job as a bartender, he was promoted to beverage manager.
“I’m deeply involved in the wine and beverage set-up,” he said. The restaurant boasts a wine list of 860, all of them American, and a 37,000-bottle wine cellar.
Inevitably, Colton has become something of a connoisseur over the years. “I love trying different wines,” he said.
He added that founder and CEO Alan Stillman’s move away from foreign wines predated any cooling of the relationship between the U.S. administration and Europe. Rather, he was inspired by restaurants he’d visited in France and Italy that specialized in their own national product.
Its beverage selection is an important part of the aura that surrounds Smith & Wollensky. In its 2003 edition, Zagat referred to its “fantastic” wines; in 2004, they were “terrific.”
The famous guidebook’s spies note its “colorful,” “old world,” “old-fashioned New York” waiters who serve “outrageous” slabs of meat to revive the “Wall Street weary.” Furthermore, it’s “clubby, a “manly man” place and “one honkin’ great steakhouse” that is the “real deal.”
And Zagat says bargain-hunters’ carping about “Smith & Expensky” is dealt effectively with the Wollensky Grill next door, with its more broadly appealing prices.
But the recommendation that the restaurant cherishes most comes from the pen of a New York Times critic who said that Smith & Wollensky was the “steakhouse to end all arguments.”
Colton himself came to the restaurant on a recommendation.
“I didn’t know Tommy when I called him. And he said, ‘You know, Pat, I’ve 20 resumes of bartenders on my desk in front of me. Why don’t you call me in six or nine months?’ Colton said. “Then, I just happened to mention the guy who recommended me. And he said, ‘OK, come in tomorrow morning.’ “
Colton left the tiny village of Beragh 25 years ago, the only one of a family of eight children to leave County Tyrone.
“You blink, you miss it. It’s got four pubs, one Protestant church, one Catholic church and Coltons,” he said, laughing.
Early in Colton’s career at Smith & Wollensky, a visiting Dublin businessman formed an instant bond with him because his mother was from Beragh.
“He was in here all the time when he was in New York. He became one of the guys,” he said.
Then the businessman made a trip from Dublin to Beragh to trace his roots. He asked an elderly man in the street to point out his mother’s homestead, which he did. The Dubliner then explained his friendship with Colton in New York and could he direct him to his father’s house? The old man said, “I’m his father.”
His wife, Geraldine, who is an Aer Lingus employee, grew up in Fintona, Co. Tyrone. Three of her brothers live in Canada, but her other eight siblings stayed in Northern Ireland.
The couple married in 1979 and intended originally to go to Canada in 1980. “But it wasn’t so easy to get in then, so we said, ‘Let’s try New York for a couple of years,’ ” he recalled.
They now live in Massapequa Park, L.I., and have a daughter Aisling, who’s 17, and a 10-year-old son, Matthew.
Hart’s wife, Cathy, whose family roots are in Mayo, is a nurse. They have three children: Thomas, who is a junior at Cornell, Brian and Christine.
Hart has been to both his ancestral counties, Kerry and Armagh, several times. Some years ago, he stayed in his grandmother’s childhood home in Cahirsiveen. “They still live and work the same farm that she grew up on,” he said.
“It’s amazing that someone would have the nerve to do that,” he said referring to her teenage immigration.
It was said that the girl who later became Nora O’Shea Hughes, when she married a Bronx bus driver, and who died at the age of 94 a few years ago, could do the work of two men on the family farm.
Her grandson believes strongly in the values of hard work and loyalty she brought to America.
Hart said that he knows all 200 members of his staff personally.
“They’re family, they get treated that way, and they give the respect back to me and to us, and they work very, very hard,” he said.
“At the end of the day if they trust you, they’ll work hard for you,” Hart added.
And Smith & Wollensky has offered opportunities to immigrants like Colton and executive chef Victor Chavez, who is from Ecuador, to thrive and move up in the business.
However, the Tyrone man preferred to be modest about his success in America.
“I came to this country with a suitcase and $500. I still have the suitcase,” Colton said with a hearty laugh.