In the early 1980s, Ken Himmel, president and CEO of Related Urban, realized that Boston lacked a classic steak house. He decided to fill the gap. At the time, he was developing Copley Place, a shopping mall in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood; Grill 23 & Bar opened in 1983 in the Salada Tea Building on Berkeley Street.
Now 34 years old, the steak house has become the classic that Himmel imagined. An institution of the Boston dining scene, it serves as many as 700 people on a busy evening, many of them loyal regulars. But the restaurant doesn’t rest on its laurels; Himmel has made it a priority to ensure that Grill 23 & Bar stays relevant.
“This is a local-owned and -operated restaurant. And that hits a chord with most people,” remarks Himmel. “We keep reinvesting. [Grill 23 & Bar] has been here for a long time with incredible integrity with everything we do.”
That philosophy is exemplified in the wine program. Grill 23 & Bar has been a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winner since 1992, when it earned an Award of Excellence for its 150-selection wine list. In 2001, the restaurant achieved the Best of Award of Excellence for the first time, with the wine program having grown to 900 selections that showed increased breadth and depth in top regions.
Today, the cellar is 1,900 selections strong, with strengths in California, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy, Champagne and Piedmont, and this year earns the Grand Award.
Master Sommelier Brahm Callahan, 33, who is the corporate beverage director for Himmel Hospitality, and wine director Brad Fichter, 34, oversee Grill 23 & Bar’s wine program.
“When I took over the wine program here [in 2010], the goal was to really separate us, bar none. We wanted to put our flag in the ground in places I feel really passionate about,” says Callahan.
“California Cabernet certainly does well for us because it makes sense with the kind of food that we serve,” Callahan adds. “But very few restaurants make the investment in older California Cabernet that we do.” Mature California standouts include Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour 1964 ($589), Mayacamas Mt. Veeder 1987 ($598), and Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve 1977 ($462).
In addition to trophy bottles, values abound on the list, with 400 selections priced at less than $100.
Building relationships with wineries, Callahan explains, is paramount when creating a wine program of this caliber. “We had a 20-plus-year vertical of Ridge Monte Bello, where everything came directly from Ridge. Paul Draper signed the bottles himself on the way out of the winery. So we certainly source that way and are willing to pay a premium for those bottles as well,” says Callahan.
This approach is echoed in Grill 23 & Bar’s meat program. Chris Himmel, Ken’s son and executive vice president of business development of Himmel Hospitality, spearheads beef sourcing for the restaurant. His relationship with family-run purveyor Brandt Beef in California is based on a mandate to serve the best all-natural product available.
“Eric Brandt, who is the owner of Brandt Beef, has become one of my best friends,” says the younger Himmel. “Eric hand-selects all of our beef every Monday morning in California. He goes to the line, and he hand-stamps everything. We’ll take the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of beef they produce.” Popular cuts of beef on the menu include the 14-ounce dry-aged prime New York ($67) and the 10-ounce American Kobe cap steak ($69).
But though Grill 23 & Bar is a steak house to the bone, it has earned a reputation for its seafood offerings as well. “People call this a steak house, but many people come here for the seafood,” notes Ken Himmel. Classic appetizers include crab cakes served with scallop mousse and coleslaw, and a New England chowder made with smoked pork, lobster and lobster-infused butter.
The scene at Grill 23 & Bar is high-energy. The waitstaff, in classic white smocks, move deftly through the dining space, with its dramatic high ceilings and grand columns. But through the flurry of activity, the tables are islands of relaxation and laughter, filled with jovial diners enjoying glasses of wine. It’s a setting that balances the welcome touches of a family-run business with a sophisticated approach to food and wine, and makes Grill 23 & Bar a timeless treasure in the heart of Boston.
Read the entire 2017 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, “Building Identity Through Wine," in the Aug. 31, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator.