The stakes are high for Chris Himmel’s new venture in NYC’s Hudson Yards project
When it opens on Friday, the Hudson Yards project in New York City will be staggering in its scale. The 28-acre, $25 billion city-within-a-city will include dining destinations helmed by world famous restaurateurs: A continental conservatory from Thomas Keller, a sprawling Spanish marketplace from José Andrés, a Korean-inspired outpost from Momofuku’s David Chang.
And then, of course, there will be the American brasserie from Chris Himmel.
“Keller, Andrés, Chang . . . and Himmel?” Chris Himmel jokes from a quiet corner of Grill 23’s dining room just before the Back Bay steakhouse’s dinner service kicks into high gear.
The 40-year-old Himmel oversees four of the region’s most prominent restaurants: Grill 23 & Bar, Harvest Restaurant, Post 390, and Bistro du Midi. But his new brasserie with chef Michael Lomonaco, the 275-seat Hudson Yards Grill, is the riskiest endeavor of his career: A new restaurant, in a new city, in a high-profile new development that anticipates 30 million visitors a year.
His goal is to create a neighborhood restaurant for an entirely new neighborhood.
And Himmel, who heads the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group, has more to prove than the other superstars involved in Hudson Yards. He’s the son of Kenneth Himmel, the megaproject’s developer, but he’s looking to make a name for himself.
As Chris Muller, a hospitality professor at Boston University, put it: “To all my New York people, this is a Michael Lomonaco restaurant,” he said. “The smart ones will say, ‘Himmel? Oh, his dad is the money.’ ”
Kenneth Himmel built Copley Place, opened Grill 23, and then went on to execute massive development projects like New York’s Time Warner Center. The elder Himmel is chief executive of Related Urban, the arm of the Related Cos., which oversees Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in US history.
Papa Himmel’s high-profile career meant that his son grew up surrounded by developers and chefs, but Chris Himmel says it was his father’s acumen with restaurants, honed first at the Salem Country Club and later at Grill 23, that helped establish his reputation as the development team’s food fixer.
“Developers spend their whole lives trying to figure out [the restaurant] side of the game,” Himmel said. “Watching that growing up, I thought to myself that someday it would be a great thing to be a part of.”
As a young child, Himmel toddled under the heels of the wait staff at Grill 23; as a teenager, he poured drinks at its mahogany bar. After attending Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration he staged at Keller’s French Laundry restaurant, and took the helm of Himmel Hospitality at 27.
He jokes that while some families took road trips to national parks, Himmel family vacations centered around food. He has over 700 menus he’s collected from the world’s most celebrated restaurants; he started snagging them at age 5.
For the last decade, the family’s portfolio of restaurants has steadily hummed along, offering their signature Brandt porterhouse steaks to Boston’s expense-account set.
But while other restaurant groups in the city have expanded their reach — and some have faltered amid the mercurial restaurant economy — the cautious Himmel group hasn’t opened a new restaurant in a decade. The Hudson Yards restaurant is the group’s largest.
“In today’s day and age, there’s a lot of things opening and developers are quick to say, ‘Develop something in the base of my building,’ even when it may not necessarily be in the best interest of the operators,” Himmel said.
The Hudson Yards project involves daunting challenges, as the restaurants will live on the development’s higher floors, and guests will need to work their way up through the retail complex to find them.
Related is betting that they can convince New Yorkers to think vertically, as they did with the Time Warner Center’s collection of upper-floor restaurants. And they’ve stacked the deck in their favor by including, alongside Hudson Yards Grill, an array of name-brand hot spots that are also owned in part by the development group, including Momofuku, Milk Bar, and &pizza.
“This is a big enough play that it will put him on the map,” Ed Doyle, a Boston-based restaurant consultant said of Himmel. “On the consumer side, he’s not a known name yet.”
He may be upstaged by his partner in the endeavor, Lomonaco, whose career includes stints at New York’s “21” Club, Windows on the World, and Porter House Bar and Grill.
But Lomonaco says the younger Himmel actually helped teach him how to run a steakhouse.
In 2006, Lomonaco worked with Kenneth Himmel to open the Porter House in the Time Warner Center. As part of his research, he came up to Boston and spent a week shadowing Chris Himmel at Grill 23. He recalls the younger Himmel’s “youthful energy, drive, and enthusiasm, and his knowledge of the food-service industry.”
Himmel, back then, was starstruck — he’d grown up watching Lomonaco’s cooking shows. But it started a relationship that led to their current partnership.
Critics of Hudson Yards have denounced the tax breaks that the city poured into the project. Some lament that all of its full-service restaurants are owned by men (the developers told Eater that the women they attempted to work with couldn’t secure financing).
But Lomonaco pushes back on the notion that nepotism secured Hudson Yards Grill’s place among restaurant royalty. “It was not a done deal, it was a deal that had to be made,” he said.
Himmel has been spending a lot of time on the Acela between cities as he’s been finalizing the details.
The grill’s menu will carry a mix of unpretentious American fare, he says — steaks, burgers, sushi, flatbreads, rotisserie-grilled meats. He’s brought on the Himmel’s group’s master sommelier, Brahm Callahan.
“This is my family business, this is an extension of my living room,” he said, sweeping a long arm toward Grill 23’s host stand. “We do things really well here. There’s a lot that they can learn from us.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Related, the parent company involved with the Hudson Yards project, built the Time Warner Center.