How Shadowbrook, a fabled estate and shrewsbury landmark, has managed to cater to brides and fine dining aficionados for decades
Hidden on a secluded, tree-lined stretch of road in Shrewsbury, amidst 20 acres of gardens in a dreamlike landscape, Shadowbrook, a century-old Georgian-style mansion filled with historic décor and other iconic treasures, has for decades remained one of New Jersey’s premier dining and catering destinations.
“It offers a setting and a style that cannot be found anywhere else,” noted Robert Zweben, current owner of the storied mansion and property, which serves as a pristine backdrop for hundreds of annual events. “We have this beautiful historic building on an expansive piece of land that is only one hour from Manhattan, but truly serves as an escape.”
Originally built as a summer home for Manhattan surgeon Dr. Ernest Fahnestock in 1909, the estate hosted its first social function in 1941 and was officially transformed into a fine dining establishment by Fred Thorngreen in 1942, who struggled to keep the restaurant afloat during World War II. In 1957, the Keller family took over and continued Thorngreen’s hospitality traditions.
“Shadowbrook was always fine din- ing, offering tableside service by tuxedoed captains who would prep your Caesar salad or present a flaming dessert,” Zweben said. “There is a long-standing tradition here, which is our goal to uphold.”
Zweben, who grew up in the hotel business (his parents owned resort hotels in Lakewood and Bradley Beach) obtained ownership of the property with his father and brother in 1971, after he graduating from Cornell.
“It wasn’t on the market,” Zweben said. “But the owner, Mr. Keller, was ill and seeking someone who would take over the business and continue the tradition of fine dining he had established. At that time, so many of New Jersey’s beautiful restaurants were being turned into steakhouses, and he did not want that to happen. So, my father, my brother, and myself decided to take on the task.”
The Zwebens—Sidney, Sandy, and Robert—did in fact remain faithful to Keller’s legacy.
“We kept the fine dining until 2006,” Robert explained. “Then gradually began to do more functions, offering Shadowbrook as an event space for our clients’ major life events.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, the business focused on a la carte dining, catering weekly to a jacket-and-tie spillover crowd from the racetrack at Monmouth Park.
“Every Saturday night at 5:30, our big room would be full,” Zweben said. “There were cocktails and dancing in the garden, dinner for 950 to 1000 people, with 12 teams on the floor and eight captains flambéing.”
That tableside service existed for some time, but as the years passed, the dress code loosened.
“Jacket and tie became just jacket, as the whole culture of dining changed,” Zweben said. “And gradually the focus turned from a la carte dining to catering.”
Still decorated with chandeliers from the Biltmore Hotel ballroom and banisters and wall sconces from the old Paramount theater in Manhattan, Shadowbrook also includes ceiling panels that once hung in the Villard Houses— beautiful brownstones where
the Palace Hotel now stands. The chairs are all custom, and the carpets were chosen from Axeminster in Northern Ireland. And while the space is predominantly open for special events, there are still elaborate dinners six nights a year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Easter, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day.
“A third of our business had become large parties,” Zweben said. “So it was certainly time to expand into catering. But we still do private dining for parties of ten or more, because we have a number of small salons and suites.”
Families throughout the tri-state area have turned to the Zwebens to host their weddings, christenings, Sweet 16s, engagements, and anniversaries.
“We have parents who were married here return to have their childrens’ weddings,” Zweben said.
In 2012, Zweben’s daughter Daryl returned to help run the business.
“Yes, this is truly a family effort,” Daryl Zweben said, smil- ing. “My sister and I grew up here…spent all of our holidays here, so I have true appreciation for the hospitality industry and everything that goes into it.”
When Daryl married this past summer and hosted her own Shadowbrook wedding, Zweben says things really came full circle.
“As my daughter planned her wedding, it offered a totally fresh look for me,” he said. “It gave me a new perspective on brides in general and their wants and needs. I was finally on the other side of the desk, really looking at invitations, floral
arrangements, and dresses. It was enlightening, and a great opportunity to reevalu- ate the services we offer here.”
Daryl, also a Cornell grad with experi- ence in the Manhattan catering and event planning scene, came on board to assist with booking, management, and mod- ern aspects of the business (such as social media). Zweben’s other daughter, Ali, is also on board, in charge of marketing.
“When my father entered into business with his father in 1971, he offered a fresh perspective, and the same thing is happen- ing now,” Daryl said. “He offers 43 years of experience and views of event planning that should always remain, but I lend a new perspective that keeps us relevant.”
For the Zweben clan, part of that relevance is constant change. Still defined by a traditional cuisine, the business never- theless features a number of varied menus, from simple to wildly elaborate.
“Generally, we feature a cocktail hour with multiple stations, gorgeous cold displays of fruit and cheese, antipastos, fresh and grilled veggies,” Robert said. “There’s a pasta station, stir fry, hot chafing dishes and carving stations, but we’re particularly known for our hors d’oeuvres—doz- ens of homemade varieties go out at every party. As far as dinners are concerned, we buy the best, cook it simply, and create a gorgeous presentation, but our appetizers allow us to play with trendy items that are currently popular with so many brides.”
Like butler-passed sliders in varieties of cheeseburger, pulled pork, Maryland crab cake, and ceramic spoonfuls of assorted ceviche.
“All of our sushi is rolled in-house,” Robert added. “And we feature a lot of innovative items like Tuna Tartare on Crispy Rice and a Portobello Bolognese that was inspired by a similar dish I tasted in Venice.”
Sit-down dinners feature an appetizer, salad, and fresh pineapple sorbet intermezzo. Classic entrees like Chateaubriand, Rosemary Herb Chicken Breast, and Salmon served with lemon dill dressing are always on the menu.
“In general, we tend to stick with a cui- sine that tastes great and translates well for 200 guests,” Robert explained. “But I think that’s a big key to succeeding in this business. This is not just food service; this is hospitality. Making people feel good and offering a memorable dining experience is what we do best.”
Photos: By Vinnie Amessé © www.amessephoto.com