Ask Nader Farahbod about the history of Billy’s Restaurant and you’ll get a tangent-filled tale, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure.
As owner and executive chef of one of Lincoln’s most successful restaurants, Farahbod is personality-plus, which is a big reason Billy’s celebrated its 30th birthday in May, making it, according to my research and memory, the city’s ninth-oldest “full-service” restaurant.
Those older include Lee’s (1942), Valentino’s (1957), Misty’s (1963), Virginia’s Travelers Cafe (1965), Tico's (1976), Piezano’s (1982), The Isles (1984) and Imperial Palace (1984).
Born and reared in Iran, Farahbod came to Nebraska in 1977 and to Lincoln in 1979. He worked at the Lincoln Exchange downtown, starting out as a kitchen helper before ending up as the restaurant’s primary chef.
“One by one, everybody left,” Farahbod said, explaining his ascension. “I ended up being the last hope by default. People call me chef, but I don’t have a chef’s license.”
In 1986, three lobbyists hired him to be the chef (and face) of their new restaurant at 1301 H St., once the home of Charles G. Dawes (1865-1951), the country’s 30th vice president under Calvin Coolidge. The eatery’s namesake is William Jennings Bryan, who, along with fellow politician George Norris, spent time with Dawes at his home rehashing events at the nearby state Capitol.
“They put me in front of the TV cameras and radio microphones,” Farahbod said of the owners. “They let me take the blame and credit.”
He paused and then added: “They gave me ALL the credit, but took ALL the cash.”
Then he laughed.
In 1998, Farahbod made Billy’s his own, and in 2014 he bought the house.
The fine-dining restaurant is known for his menu -- he’s a master at cooking lamb, steaks and seafood -- and superb service, with many employees having been with him for years.
“Nader will do anything to make a person happy with the experience at Billy’s and the food,” said server Ramona Hyde, who’s worked at the restaurant for 10 years. “He’s very hands-on, and he genuinely cares.”
The biggest draw may be Billy's unique atmosphere. It’s the only full-service restaurant in Lincoln operating out of an actual house. Billy’s occupies the main level, with the upstairs rented out as offices.
“Just about every table is a corner table,” Farahbod said of the many-roomed restaurant. “It offers you some privacy.”
He hopes Billy’s will continue for another 30 or more years. His son, Jordan, a 20-year-old sophomore studying business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, works the front of the house. Farahbod wouldn’t mind if the restaurant stayed in the family.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on him,” Farahbod said. “I would like to have him follow in my footsteps, but I know how taxing and demanding this business is. I don’t wish that on anybody.”
And he has no plans to retire anytime soon. He's still got jokes to share with customers and wonderful dishes to serve.