In 1986, a year after opening his eponymous diner Russell's Marina Grill, Russell Cuoco asked the man who'd just detailed his car if he'd like a job. The man told Cuoco that he certainly would like a job, and, just like that, Al Williams' began his 27-year tenure as the busboy/waiter/Bloody Mary mixologist at Russell's, washing dishes in the kitchen. He eventually moved to the floor, where he'd quickly become the most recognizable face in the restaurant, greeting a steady stream of morning regulars with a signature Bloody Mary and a genial salutation. Williams' breakfast cocktail is so popular that he can make close to thirty of them on a busy weekend morning, but for a lot of Russell's repeat customers, a Bloody Mary in the morning is only a minor part of their breakfast ritual. The major part, the most important part, is saying, "Hello" to Williams, something that (full disclosure) happened four times just over the course of Eater's sit-down with one of the city's most senior diner employees.
You've been here for a long time.
I've been here 27 years and I'm still at it, you know, just trying to make everybody happy. I seat people and make them smile so they'll leave happy. Sometimes, people come in and they're looking for me. Sometimes, they come in looking for Bloody Marys, and I make them. This morning, it seemed like everybody wanted a Bloody Mary?I made two early on in the morning, and five total before the morning was out.
Five Bloody Marys on a Wednesday?
It's a little unusual on a weekday. The big days for my special Bloody Mary are Saturday and Sunday. On those days, I make between 15 and 25.
How long does it take you to make all those? Do you have a big batch ready for those busier days?
No, no?I make them to order, since some people like them spicier than others. I make them all with love.
How'd your get started working here?
I started detailing the owner's car, and one day, he asked if I wanted a job. I said I did, and I've been here ever since.
As for getting started with the Bloody Marys, someone just asked me one day, "I need a Bloody Mary?can you make one?" I said I could hook it up nice for him, and from that day 'till now, I've been making them. I've been on the radio a few times for those Bloody Marys, been on Facebook, and YouTube.
Where'd you learn how to make your Bloody Mary?
It's just something I picked up over the years. Really, I started making them here, and it just became one of those things?it's on the menu now, so people come in sometimes just for a Bloody Mary. Word spreads, too. I've had people come in from New York, California, and Florida asking for a Bloody Mary, and I've got regular customers bringing new people in just to try a Bloody Mary.
What's your favorite meal on the menu here?
I'd go for the waffles and chicken, if I had to pick any one thing. If not the waffles and chicken, definitely the bananas foster, which has the ice cream on top and the special sauce. You don't need syrup or anything with that.
How much has Russell's changed over the years? Is it very different from when you started?
It's still pretty much the same, still going good. We have our slow days just like any place else, but when it gets crowded, it's important to make people feel good about coming in. You greet them at the door, sit them down, and make sure they get everything they want.
What are the busiest days?
Saturday and Sunday, for sure. If you want to sit down right away on those days, you have to get here between 7:00 am and 8:00 am. Anything after 8, you can get in without a wait?the dining room and patio will be packed. Some people wait all morning to get a table, even the regulars coming in everyday.
I've been here so long, too, that if the regulars come in and don't see me, they think something's wrong with me. They'll ask, "What happened to Big Al? Is he sick?" Nope, just taking a little rest. I always want to tell them that there are other people working here they can say hello to [laughs].
What's the hardest part of your job? Your favorite part?
My hardest part is...really, nothing. After 27 years, I've got it down pat. My favorite part is taking care of the customers. When we get busy on the weekends and the waitresses can't get around to every table, I'll go check on people to make sure everything is good for them. We don't want anyone to leave with a bad attitude. I want everyone to leave thinking that they'll be coming back, and soon.
[Waves to a customer] Like this young man here. He's one of my regulars, and he's been coming here since I started working.
When did you finally fall into this routine of working mornings, Wednesday through Sunday?
I remember when I first started I was washing dishes and bussing tables. The boss asked me when I'd like to work, either the morning or the night shift, and I told him that I'd work whenever he had an opening. Well, the first opening was the night shift, so I started there, but he pulled me aside one day and asked why I didn't want to work the morning. I told him that I'd taken the first opportunity I could, which just happened to be the night shift. Pretty soon, he got another opening and moved me to the morning shift, which I've been working ever since.