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25 Years Later, Why Nick & Sam’s Is Still Great

Local Profile interviews Chef Samir Dhurandhar and Sam Romano

The lights are up. The tables look immaculate. Prep work is underway in the kitchen. Nick & Sam's won't be open for hours. But when the doors open, the restaurant is ready to serve deliciousness like it has for the past quarter of a century. 

This April marks the iconic restaurant's 25th anniversary — a major milestone. I point that out to Samir Dhurandhar, the restaurant's executive chef and co-owner, and a longtime Plano resident. It’s early April, and we're sitting at a table in the middle of Nick & Sam's, with Sam Romano, the restaurant's majority owner and general partner.

Founded by restaurateur Phil Romano of Macaroni Grill and EatZi's fame, Nick & Sam's opened in April 1999 under Chef Dhurandhar. Since then, the restaurant's menu expanded, and Nick & Sam's became a go-to spot for celebrities, sports superstars, business powerbrokers and anyone wanting a fantastic meal. 

(Previously, Local Profile published an excerpt from Chef Dhurandhar's autobiography Raising the Steaks: My Journey to Creating the Best Steakhouse in the World: Nick & Sam's.) 

"Everyone's congratulating us and stuff like that," Chef tells me. "It's just that I've always looked at it as a challenge. We're open another day."

Below is Local Profile's conversation with Dhurandhar and Sam Romano about the iconic restaurant’s past and future. It has been edited for clarity. 

LP: What sticks out for you over the past 25 years? 

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: It's definitely an accomplishment. What sticks out I think is how I've gotten to know Dallas a lot better than when I first came here — the people, the community and all the amazing people that I've met throughout my 25 years here.

Sam Romano: I grew up in the restaurant. Some of my earliest memories are here. One of the cooler things about the restaurant is the same people were here, and I now get to be a part of the whole operation. That really is the definition of family business: the continuity of the same people. I mean, Samir has had the same kitchen staff since the opening, for the most part.

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: About 70% of them are still around. 

Sam Romano: To piggyback off that, some of the servers we've had since the very beginning have been able to grow with the restaurant and make a true career for themselves from waiting tables. 

When you have a younger person come in and see someone who's been here since the beginning and is successful, they get to learn from that. You come here and you learn, but it's because of what we do every day. And that hasn't changed for 25 years. 

But we've also changed with the times. Ask Samir — he put sushi on the menu before that was a normal thing. So it's little things yet keeping the continuity of our characteristics and treating the guest as best as we can. And that flows onto our staff. At the same time, we are holding our staff accountable. But I think at this point they hold each other accountable. If you're wearing Nick & Sam's on your chest, you're taking pride in that and not just collecting a paycheck. 

Our whole mantra at Nick & Sam's is that we treat the guest as best as we can. The guest comes first always, and we go above and beyond for anybody. But I'd like to think that as leaders, we do the same for our employees. What is the characteristic of the restaurant is how we treat people: whether you work for us, you work with us or you're a client of the restaurant. We're going to treat you very, very high-end — the best as we can.

"The guest comes first always, and we go above and beyond for anybody." 

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: The biggest thing is the consistency of what we're doing: how we take care of the guests and how we cook the food hasn't changed in 25 years. We've never deviated. Our culture has been the same, and the things we do on a daily basis has gotten us to 25 years.

LP: Sam, you were three when Nick & Sam’s opened. What are your earliest memories?

Sam Romano: I sat in that booth [pointing] with my parents, and Samir would bring cream corn to the table.

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: That was the first thing his father would really just get a bowl of corn to see if it was good. And when the bowl left the kitchen, everyone was sweating. He ate a bowl of corn. If Mr. Romano didn't say anything, it was perfect.

Sam Romano: My dad had me work here when I was 7 to 10 years old, sitting people down in the front. Chas [Martin of Duro Hospitality] was the maître d' at the time. Little did I know that I was learning a lot of things from Chas as he learned from the restaurant. Now, to come full circle and to be able to go into one of Chas' restaurants, I feel the sense of what he learned at Nick & Sam's and how he's taken that with him. I can appreciate that because he's been successful at what he does — it's the small twists on what he learned and brought with him that's made him so successful. I think that's admirable. 

LP: Was the menu different when Nick & Sam’s opened?

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: As far as where the menu was right in the beginning, it was a lot cheaper. It was a pretty basic steakhouse. I've always felt that you have to keep up with the times and to keep up with the trends. I've always tried to give people something different every time they come in here. You have to keep it fresh. People get bored, right? 

There are certain clientele that love a simple menu. But there's a bigger clientele that wants something new. Just like our restaurant: you never know what you're going to get, and you never know who you're going to see. When people come here and say, 'Oh, wow, we've added quail to the menu,' 'You've changed the foie gras,' or 'You're doing tempura mushrooms now,' it's inviting. People gravitate to some of the new stuff. We do have a lot of repeat clientele that come in two or three times a week. Besides changing the menu, we do our specials for the weekend that are very extravagant. 

"I've always tried to give people something different every time they come in here. You have to keep it fresh."

LP: That must mean, for you, as a chef, you keep on your toes. 

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: It's always about the food. I've always felt that our service is great. Don't get me wrong, but I think for any restaurant, it's about food. People go to a restaurant to eat, and if you don't give them a good dining experience, you've done something wrong. For a lot of restaurants, food takes you to a whole other level. Yes, I have capable staff that will keep an eye on everything. But in terms of the food, we have tried to experiment with different items. I've never given my chef a budget, from truffles to caviar. It's all about getting the best product, You start with the best, and you don't have to go that far after that.

LP: Sam, did you always plan on entering the family business?

Sam Romano: I got a phone call during my junior year at Syracuse University. My dad had a little heart scare and ended up getting two stents in his arteries for his heart. He's actually an initial investor in heart stents, so he likes to tell people that he saved his own life. So, he called me, and he said, 'Hey, I need you to come and learn the business. You're my only child.' It was almost like a call to order. It was, this is my calling. Literally. This is what I'm gonna do. I played lacrosse, and I went to school for sports management. I always wanted to be in the sports world. I always enjoyed being on a team and winning together. Having this team here is my favorite one that I've been on. It's special, and 25 years in the making. When I came back in the family business, this is the first place I started and tried to soak up as much information as I could. I always like to think that I'm learning all the time. I like to know what I know, and I like to know what I don't know. That's why I'm always learning.

LP: Sam, do you think your experience playing lacrosse in high school and college prepared you for this? 

Sam Romano: I think team sports in general did. You learn selflessness. You learn how to work as a team. We are only as good as our weakest link. So how do we make sure that we don't have any weak links? And I think that we do that by continuous practice and what we do on a daily basis. It doesn't stop. If you're a new server or you're new to the restaurant, you're watching somebody. You see it continuously lead by example.

LP: Did you ever feel any pressure?

Sam Romano: A bit. But at the same time, because of the team, I can rely on people like Samir, and Miriam [Rollins]. Look, we're in this together. These are the cards I was dealt. Look at my cards, and let's play them together and figure out the best way to success.

LP: Over the past 25 years, what are you most proud of?

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: I'm proud of this restaurant. We're still around. I've made a lot of good friends through this business and through this restaurant. I've learned a lot in the past 25 years — the wisdom I've gotten from different people. I don't think I'd be sitting here talking to you if it wasn't for that. It's been amazing. I've been blessed with good people. And good people produce great product. Sam said it is a team, and right now, who we have here, have been amazing.

Sam Romano: The best thing I've taken away is that if you treat somebody like you want to be treated, everything is going to work out — whether that's with an employee or with a customer. I think that's what defines Nick & Sam's, and I think to be able to spill that on to everyday life and business is very valuable and teaches you selflessness. This restaurant is not around for me. It's around for the city of Dallas. It's a round for our employees. It's around for our team. 

"If you treat somebody like you want to be treated, everything is going to work out — whether that's with an employee or with a customer."

LP: What is something you learned from your dad?

Sam Romano: My dad told me, whatever I tried to do, be the very best at it. So I tried to apply that to Nick & Sam's with what we do, because I want us to be, and I believe that we are, the best restaurant in Dallas. And that's what drives my competitive spirit. I want to be viewed as the number one restaurant in Dallas. And of course, I'm biased, but I think we are.

LP: Last time, I talked to Chef Samir about living in Plano. Is opening restaurants up North something l have thought about?

Sam Romano: We've thought about it. I can't tell you anything yet. But we've thought about it. And you know, there are good opportunities that we've kicked down the road, but we have not gotten there yet. Maybe one day.

LP: So after 25 years, what's next?

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: Hopefully another 25. 

LP: Most restaurants don't make it five years.

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: We weren't the best in the beginning. You know, maybe five or seven years into Nick & Sam's, we were sitting down at a table and talking about what we needed to cut. But what I tell our staff here when there's a restaurant opening up in town or across the street, we do what we do. We do it better than anybody else. And we keep doing it. That's what's gotten us here: consistency. You come here, you know you’re going to get great service. You're going to have a great time.

LP: How did you make that change to being the best?

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: I still believe we haven't reached our potential. We should be better when there's no reason why. And I push everybody to get better. You have to do that. I don't think there's a limit to what you can do. I don't think I can ever sit back and say, 'Hey, man, I can't do anything else.' Shame on me, if I ever think that way. I want to come here and I want to get better every day. You know, just like Sam's dad told him to be better at everything he does. My first chef taught me that. I was cutting bread one day, he walked by and he said I was doing it wrong. Then, he showed me and said, 'Samir, for the next 30 days before you start your shift, you're gonna slice a loaf of bread and slice better every day.' And that's what I did for 30 days. And that's my kind of a mantra. Whatever you're doing, try to do it better tomorrow.

"I still believe we haven't reached our potential."

LP: So do you think that at that point, that type of thinking really took hold?

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: I think at least for me, it did. The fact is that I don't want to let people go. As a team, I think we all decided we've got to work harder and do better at what we do. 

LP: The anniversary is a result of all that.

Sam Romano: I've learned from this place. I get to take what I've learned here and bring it to other restaurants for their success. This is the mold for success in a restaurant. But like Samir said, it's also time, and it's consistency. You build that consistency, and you build trust. The struggle for a lot of other businesses is consistency.

Chef Samir Dhurandhar: You have to adapt, you have to adapt to what you're doing. You see what's working.

Sam Romano: Things have been put in place, and it's been practiced over and over again. You are how you practice. It's a term we use in lacrosse. We get to practice every day. All people see our veteran servers do what they do every day. And they lead by example. We are all one. Everybody does it together.

For everyone here, I may think a certain way, but I want to hear what they think. Because we're going to make an opinion together. It's not my way or the highway, right? Let's figure this out together as a team, get multiple people and come up with the best solution for whatever our problem is. I think that that's what defines the culture of the restaurant. We really practice what we preach: treat the guests the way we want to be treated. 

LP: And then they treat you well. 

Sam Romano: Exactly. The servers then know everything about you. They know your family. They know your name. You're catching up with friends. Nick & Sam's becomes your home. 

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