Chris Himmel, Marblehead resident and president of Boston’s Himmel Hospitality Group—which includes The Banks Fish House, Bistro du Midi, and Harvest—was just five years old when his father took over Grill 23 & Bar in the Back Bay. “I used to go to the restaurant, and they would just let me loose,” Himmel says of Grill 23’s early days. “And I would just soak up everything I could.”
At a time when, according to the National Restaurant Association, one in three restaurants will not survive its first year, Grill 23 & Bar is about to celebrate its 40th, a coup for any institution, and particularly for a restaurant that has recently come through one of the most trying times in the history of the industry, the pandemic. The business’s success, Himmel says, has a lot to do with the loyalty of his clientele, and an equal amount to do with the group’s dedication to reinvesting back into itself.
This year, Grill 23 has, for instance, embarked on a large-scale renovation, refreshing the space for the decades to come. The renewed kitchens at the Grill will be complete in October. Himmel, for his part, was born into the business, but believed that he needed to learn more from the industry at large before broadening his scope at his family’s business. “I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to get a different perspective and step into a bigger role at our company, I had to make sure that I got a little bit different experience,” he says.
After graduating from Cornell’s esteemed School of Hotel Administration, he moved to New York, where he worked under Danny Meyer within the Union Square Hospitality Group. “I always joke with him and some of the people I worked with that I think we all felt like we were spies,” Himmel says. “We’re, like, secretly trying to sneak in all of the employee manuals and learning, but the truth is, Danny, as everybody learned later, with his books, is really not trying to hide anything.”
Himmel credits Meyer with teaching him about the “culture of caring for your employees” and creating an environment that “fosters growth.” Himmel’s youth in Marblehead “cutting fish” helped fortify him for his days working under chef Thomas Keller at Napa Valley’s French Laundry. “I was definitely out of place when I got there in terms of level,” Himmel says.
“I think the day that they sort of turned the corner with me, they brought in a 200-pound halibut, and everyone looked at it, not having a clue how to approach it, and before I even knew what I was doing, I was on top of the knife like I would have done when I was younger.”
In Napa, he says, he learned about a respect for product and a relationship with small vendors that he has since carried through to Grill 23. “I came back to Boston with that mindset of wanting to approach our company and build a long-term culture, but also wanting to really establish relationships,” he says. He began with Eric Brandt, the owner of Brandt Beef, a family-owned and -operated California-based ranch that has raised sustainable, single-breed beef since 1945. The focus on purveyors has paid off. The restaurant, now entering its fifth decade, is as vibrant as ever. Under Himmel, it has been awarded Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for four consecutive years.
“It’s not an accident that the Grill has grown in sales over the last 20 years by leaps and bounds, partly because of our beef, and that we’ve stayed small,” Himmel says. And the reward has been staff who have stuck with the restaurant, even through the pandemic, seeing it to the other side. In celebration of 40 years, the restaurant partnered with Boston-based ice cream institution JP Licks, creating a Grill 23 coconut cake ice cream flavor; arranged a Nantucket pop-up at the White Elephant for a little over two weeks in July; and will be hosting a series of bespoke dinners this fall.
“We’re going to kick off a series of alumni wine dinners,” Himmel says. Wine directors and sommeliers from the restaurant’s long history who have gone on to work in high-stakes positions in the world of wine will be returning to host dinners from October through the holidays, featuring library selections from exceptional vineyards, paired with special menus.
The restaurant will also be reviving some of its classic dishes, reframed in a slightly more contemporary light. “We call them sort of our throwback dishes,” Himmel says. “Dishes that I’ve seen over the years that are what I consider to be classics.” And, after 40 successful years—and no sign of slowing—classic might be just the word to describe Grill 23.