When Francis Schott transferred to Rutgers during his sophomore year in 1986, he was still holding down a full-time job as a night manager of the ShopRite in Hillsborough, New Jersey. At the end of his shift, as the clock struck midnight, he would head out to his car with baguettes and fine cheeses, procured for close to nothing, and drive to his dorm room in the South Tower on the Livingston Campus in Piscataway. On one of his first nights at Rutgers, Schott met another student on the third floor, Mark Pascal, a big, popular guy in the dorm. Schott asked Pascal, who was clearly impressed with the bounty, to join him for a bite. He happily consented. “After meeting over bread, cheese, and beer,” says Schott, “we were friends immediately.”
Today, more than two decades later, they are still convening in friendship over food and drink. The two men are the owners of, and the artisans behind, Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi, two New Brunswick restaurants at the apex of fine dining in New Jersey, with reputations reaching far beyond the state’s borders. On the cusp of celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first restaurant, Stage Left, Pascal RC’88 and Schott RC’88 were recently anointed the “New Jersey Restaurateurs of the Year” by the New Jersey Restaurant Association, a designation that in essence acknowledges a career of work. For those who have known these guys all along, Pascal and Schott have been culinary trailblazers from the beginning.
Yet, a career in food wasn’t part of the original plan—far from it. Soon after graduating from Rutgers, Pascal took a job as a statistician for Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Schott was heading off to Seton Hall Law School. Within days, they dumped their career plans, preferring to work side by side as bartenders at the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick, chatting up the patrons. Smitten with restaurant life, they soon came up with the brilliant idea of opening their own place. It would be a wine bar with a limited menu that would accentuate their knowledge of spirits and wine. Underwritten by Lou Riveiro, who remains a business partner, they signed a lease to occupy a shoe box-sized space in a modest two-story storefront at the corner of George Street and Livingston Avenue. In May of 1992, Pascal and Schott opened the doors to Stage Left Restaurant (named for its proximity to the State Theatre, Crossroads Theatre, and George Street Playhouse) in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly inviting back then. “This area of town was still on the frontier,” says Pascal. “Across the street was a welfare hotel, that kind of thing. But we liked the edginess of it. We were 26 years old. Edginess was OK.”
Soon enough, so was business. The two men quickly developed a reputation within elite restaurant circles for the quality of their wine, food, and service. Initially, the pre- and post-theater crowds were their mainstay, providing them with a crash course in the necessity of prompt service. Within 10 years, as their reputation grew, Pascal and Schott had bought the building and began annexing spaces within it to expand Stage Left, dining room by dining room. They continued embellishing its appointments to complement the revered quality of its contemporary American cuisine. Six years ago, they opened their second restaurant, located above Stage Left, the lush Catherine Lombardi, named after Pascal’s grandmother whose own home cooking inspires the Italian-American fare served there. These days, with a 120-seat dining capacity in each restaurant, Pascal and Schott have the elbow room to do what they do best. And it is considerable.