The Knowles Family

Ted Gachot / January 2000

Food Arts presents the January/February 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Harry, Doris, Wade, and Kurt Knowles, members of the indefatigable northern New Jersey restaurateuring dynasty whose unflappable pursuit of quality and unshakable belief in the relevance of tradition have been key to building their much-lauded four-property domain.

The family knack for running restaurants can be traced back, on Doris' side, to the Robin Hood Inn, in Clifton, New Jersey, where her grandmother and mother served American fare with a hint of their Belgian heritage, using homegrown produce and food-stuffs from surrounding farms. Harry began his culinary career there as well, as a busboy, before shipping off to serve as a fighter pilot in the Second World War. He returned to be promoted to waiter, work his way up to manager—and into the boss' daughter's heart. With and inherited knack for heroic invention (his father, the Montclair, New Jersey police chief, created the country's first emergency medical treatment program and the world's first driver's education course) and his own swashbuckling ingenuity, he set his eyes on El Moresque, a faltering private club in West Orange, and with Doris reopened it on New Year's Eve 1956 as their own.

Changing the name to The Bow and Arrow Manor, and eventually simple The Manor, they transformed the 100-year-old, stucco-shrouded structure into a restaurant modeled after the great English and French country houses. Over the years they filled it with antique furniture and treasures from the London silver vaults. Branching out from the family tradition of raising their own produce, they built a staff of resident craftsmen that today includes a coppersmith, silversmith, upholster, glazier, and (for all the properties) some 60 chefs and kitchen staff. In 1979, they acquired their second property, the Ram's Head Inn in Absecon, seven miles from Atlantic City, bringing it into their fold and up to their level of snuff.

The Knowles' sons, Wade and Kurt, hardly stood a chance of not entering the business. They can still recall sleeping above their great-grandmother's kitchen as small children, smelling onion simmering in the mornings and sneaking down to the bakeshop in the wee hours to dip steaming hot bread in fresh milk. The family insists that "everyone does everything," but among the sons, at least, the tasks seem to break down according to personal aptitude, with Kurt managing the daunting business/logistical end of the extensive family empire and Wade the hands-on element.

Wade's unusually creative sense of history was essential to shaping the family's next two ventures, Highlawn Pavilion (1986) and Pleasantdale Château (1995). both in West Orange. Braving everything from ferocious local watchdog committees to a narrow miss with a good chunk of New Jersey bedrock air-lifted by an ill-timed dynamite blast, he rescued two endangered local landmarks and turned them into a restaurant and a meeting/catering facility, respectively. With typical Knowles high-mindedness, he also meticulously replaced rare trees and reestablished the eco-system in the network of ponds on the château's grounds.

Out of the trendy spotlight, but still in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline, the family has often been quietly ahead of the times. Highlawn Pavilion had an open kitchen and imported LaBesse-Giraudon rotisserie when only a few red-hot urban restaurants were sporting them. And though many chefs now boast of their alliances with farmers, the Knowles family has been at it 50 years—last year harvesting some 4,000 pounds of vegetables and berried from their own Pleasantdale Farm.

The family's accomplishments are no secret. The Manor alone has been showered with praise like "as close as one can get to perfection" from the New York Times and awards from all corners, including currently holding a Wine Spectator Grand Award, DiRoNa Award, and a place in Gourmet magazine's America's Top Tables. Not simple shining examples in themselves, the Knowles restaurants are unrivaled exemplars of the power of restaurants both to preserve and enrich communities.