Bill Summerville, managing director and part-owner, says farewell to La Belle Vie

Bill Summerville

Bill Summerville

When you're entering La Belle Vie, several things catch your eye. There's the elegant chandelier dripping with crystals, the stately lounge with plush carpet and a swanky bar, and often, there is a tall man with dark hair, elegantly dressed, awaiting your arrival. Bill Summerville, wine expert and managing director at La Belle Vie, is the man who, for over a decade, has facilitated the best fine dining experience in the Twin Cities. On Friday, it was announced that the Summerville would step away from the restaurant to work on several unnamed upcoming projects.

We spoke with Summerville about where he's been, what he loves, and how he spends his tax refunds.

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The Hot Dish: How did you get into the hospitality industry?
Bill Summerville: Well, my mother was a great cook and I always loved food. I started out working in kitchens before I moved into the front of the house. I had come back from college to work at a restaurant I'd worked for before. The chef informed me that they didn't hire summer help. So, I moved to front of house.

When would you say you knew you were really good at service?
Um, a couple of years ago? 

Where did your passion for wine come from?
When I was at Pronto, which was in the downtown Hyatt where Oceanaire used to be. They put me in charge of putting together a wine list, and I had no idea what I was doing. I turned a bottle around and started reading the label and I wondered what it meant. I knew nothing about wine. It began there: I was reading, tasting, and traveling. There is so much to learn.

I love everything about wine -- drinking it and meeting the winemakers, kicking the dirt and speaking with the farmers that actually grow grapes. There are plenty of wineries where they don't actually farm the land and it's just a vanity project. The wines that are grown by people who work hard, get their hands in the dirt, that's the wine I like to drink most.

I convinced [Pronto] to put together a list of wines that no one would be able to find anywhere else. That was the beginning.

When did you first meet Tim McKee?
We were talking about that. We think it was in 1996 when we were both working at D'Amico Cucina. When Tim and I were there, Cucina was at its peak. This was when people were really dining out often. Target Center was new and the Timberwolves were going like crazy. People went out and really celebrated.

I remember one night when they were filming Grumpier Old Men in town and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were waiting for Sophia Loren. She came in dressed head to toe in red. I remember the entire dining room, the decibel level just dropped in half. It was wild. We had Paul McCartney come in, Jane Goodall -- it was such a great time, a fun, energized, beautiful time.

I ended up working there 10 years off and on. Tim and I didn't realize it, but turned in our notice on the exact same day. We both gave three months' notice. He would go on to open La Belle Vie in Stillwater. I went to live in Italy. Our last night was New Year's Eve 1997.

How did you and Tim come back together?
Tim asked me to do the wine list for Solera when I was in Italy. When we moved back, Tim and his wife picked us up from the airport. Tim made the best dinner I've ever had. That was 1999. I went back to Cucina one more time. Then, I helped Tim open Solera. In April of 2003 we became partners and I went to run La Belle Vie in Stillwater.

La Belle Vie seems to be a family. Even when people leave, they come back together, as with the 15th birthday the restaurant threw. Why do you think that is?
It's the nature of the restaurant business. When we were coming up, there were really only two restaurants, Goodfellows and D'Amico Cucina, and there was a lot of competition. It's not like that anymore. There's a bond that restaurant people have. When I was coming up there was no one to look up to, to drink wine with and say, "Try this." There's so much going on and I feel an obligation to share my knowledge. It's really a great joy to be in this business right now.

Which is why it's now time to try new things? Ready to share that news about what your new project will be?
It's been simmering and things just clicked. Because of the richness of this community there are so many opportunities. I couldn't pursue these projects and give La Belle Vie the commitment it deserves. 

My next project will be announced in the next few weeks and some will be further down the road. Some might not even happen. There is stuff out there that I'm passionate about.

So often, guests will dine out and be able to recall a beautiful meal with an Instagram, but they don't always remember great service. They'll remember bad service for years, but when it goes well, it's primarily a bunch of subtle cues. How do you approach that?
I've had a number of discussions about hospitality. What is service versus hospitality? It's all about hospitality. It's about being genuine. People come in for the entertainment, the escape. It's great to be a part of that.

My favorite customers are the young couples who come, like the kids coming in for prom right now. They can't afford to come in often, but they get to have this moment. I remember when I would get my tax return when I was younger, I would take my mother out for a special dinner. So to see these young people and be able to part of their experience is really special.

When will your last day be?
May 17.

What will you miss most about La Belle Vie?
Just the service in general, the feeling I get seeing what a great job my staff does. I'll miss the camaraderie, the staff, and the relationships with our customers. 

Sometimes I'll step back and watch when everything is running smoothly and I wonder, how does this happen? It's amazing, but there's this right chemistry between the staff and the guests. It's joy. It's fun.

What I tell my staff is that the chefs cook the food. That is their craft. Service is our craft. We have to train and practice and it's something we have to work at, but great service is something we create.

We have a great opportunity to be social scientists, and it's our opportunity to make someone feel special, even though they aren't the only people that are dining with us, that is our opportunity to make their experience. That's the joy, and we have so many people to dance with.

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