Written by Sue Bodson
Greenwich is renowned for its restaurant scene. Many “star” chefs have tried to crack it, and they barely lasted a year. To many who frequent eateries in Greenwich, one of the most coveted spots is the corner seat at Elm Street Oyster House bar.
For 28 years, Billy Kulhanek has been serving up the freshest seafood in town, and when asked how he had survived for so long, he simply said, “Focus.”
He explained that the restaurant business is a daily grind.
“So you need to focus on the customer, the food and the experience, and you always have to learn and grow,” he said. Sitting at the Elm Street Oyster House bar is a food lover’s equivalent of “Cheers” – someplace where friends surround you, but you share great seafood rather than sharing beers.
And, as Billy pointed out, you can also have the best cheeseburger in town.
Thirty-three years ago, Billy and his parents opened the Elm Street Café in what is now the bar area of the restaurant. They expanded into the space next door when Enterprise Rent-a-Car moved out, but still, Billy felt they might not make it. He approached two lifetime friends, Jim Sullivan and Jan Fabry, for advice. ‘Open a seafood restaurant,’ they advised, and then they decided to go into it all together.
“We actually signed the contract at Terra, the restaurant up the street. I guess that makes them older than us, but I’ve been in my spot slightly longer than them,” Billy laughed. In signing that contract, Billy got a partnership that has lasted to this day and a restaurant that is a staple of the Greenwich eating scene. Jim and Jan eventually started the Pearl Management Group, which owns Westchester restaurants like Rye Bar and Grill, Ruby’s Oyster Bar, and the Tap House.
Billy revealed that he didn’t start in the food industry. He initially tried to break into the animation business, following his sister, who was a trailblazer as a woman cameraman.
Fortunately for Greenwich, Billy decided that this would not be his future. After a few stints as a bartender and waiter, he decided that the only way to succeed in the restaurant business was to become a chef and owner. Forsaking going to school, Billy grabbed a bunch of cookbooks, worked in various kitchens, and taught himself. All of the dishes on the menu are of his creation though he admits, “You always have to learn and adapt. I listen to the suggestions of new staff as to how I can tweak a dish to improve it.”
What also makes Elm Street unique is that it’s not only Billy who has been there from the start. Waiters Jaime and Abdul have been there for 27-½ and 26 years each.
When asked how that could be, given the norm in turnover with wait-staff, Billy explained, “It isn’t a job for them. It is a profession. They put their kids through college working here. They have always taken pride in making the dining experience exceptional and having customers return to the restaurant again and again.”
The fresh seafood also keeps customers returning.
For 28 years and counting, Billy has been calling Len Sbordone at ARS Fish every evening at 11:00pm to place his fish order. Sbordone makes daily, early morning trips to Hunt’s Point and purchases the seafood right off the boat.
“His fish is the best. A busy seafood restaurant is better than a slow one; we buy every day,” Billy said.
When Covid hit, Elm Street Oyster House, like every other restaurant, scrambled to survive. Through take-out and outdoor dining, Elm Street was able to stay alive. Billy was quick to give credit where credit was due.
“Thank God for Fred Camillo and the outdoor dining accommodations,” he said. “Fred saved the restaurants of Greenwich.”
When winter really kicked in, Billy decided that it was time to renovate the restaurant. He described it as “beat-up” and in need of refreshing. While the layout may not look different today, there are many changes. The restaurant is accessible and includes an entirely re-built kitchen and cooking area with all new equipment. All surfaces have been resurfaced as well.
What’s the favorite change? “People love the wallpaper in the bathrooms with the lemons and oysters,” Billy said. But some things have not changed.
Above the bar remains the famous reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X,” but with a few embellishments. Billy explained that his friend and fellow Greenwich resident Jeff Danberg painted the fish mural in the main dining room. They were talking about what they could redo above the bar to make it look different when Jeff informed Billy that he also was a copiest – someone who could reproduce famous paintings.
After some discussion, they settled on Madame X with some added features to represent the restaurant; an oyster, a glass of champagne, and a candle. Billy laughs that the oyster and champagne made it, but Elm Street never had candles on the tables; “too dangerous,” explained Billy.
Despite all the hours he spends at the restaurant, Billy does have another life. He is a voracious reader and an avid history buff who usually reads three books at a time.
His current reads include Bernard Caldwell’s “Sharpe’s Assassination” and Max Hastings’s “Operation Pedestal,” two of his favorite authors. If you enjoy the background music at the restaurant, thank Billy for the song-list culled from his 16,000 extended Apple Music library.
“People seem to enjoy the music from the 60s and 70s the most,” Billy said.
To relax, Billy builds model airplanes and dotes on his two cats, Harry and Chrissie, named after people who were kind to him. Harry was a refrigerator repairman who helped him out, and Chrissie was an ex-girlfriend.
When asked about his favorite dish, the Tuna Wasabi, which he created 28 years ago, he said it was still his and his customers’ favorite.
Over the almost three decades, Billy has seen countless times when strangers picked up another customer’s tab just because they enjoyed their conversations.
He loves that couples come back and say, “Our first date was here, and we got married.”
Billy added that from there, customers’ adult children began to come to see him.
He has many favorite customers and stories, but chuckles over who he has nicknamed, “Tuna Carpaccio,” an older man who over the years has brought a string of dates to the restaurant and appears to try and impress them by flamboyantly ordering the tuna carpaccio.
Despite how good it is, Billy said he still hasn’t figured out why the dish is meant to impress the dates.
Among the celebrities who have graced Elm Street Oyster House have been Mariah Carey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Plant, Tommy Hilfiger, and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. Billy pointed out, “We have lots of basketball players who come in, but I’m not into that sport, so I can’t name them. Don’t tell them, please.”
Twenty-eight years and counting, Elm Street Oyster House is a favorite spot for many Greenwich residents.
Billy beamed, “The bar is like Cheers, the dining room is romantic, and the outdoor seating a blessing.”
When asked if he would do anything differently, Billy quickly said, “No. I don’t think I would. Things happen for a reason. If I did something different, something else could happen that wouldn’t be so good. I have two great partners, and we are still together. It is pretty amazing.”