Grill 23 & Bar: Serving Up Modern American Classics

Fall 2011 - Grill 23 & Bar (Grill 23) holds the distinction of being one of Boston’s first luxury steak and seafood grills, and for almost three decades it has been a culinary landmark for the discerning carnivore. Widely regarded as a must-try by both New Englanders and tourists alike, the restaurant and bar prides itself on offering both classic and modern American cuisine with a heavy emphasis on seasonality and superior customer service. Grill 23 also strives to pair its fare expertly with the perfect wine, selected from a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-recognized list spanning over 1,500 bottles, with newcomers added daily.
While Grill 23’s menu may have changed over the course of 28 years, the pioneering restaurant still calls the historic turn-of-the-century Salada Tea Building in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood home. In the ensuing era the restaurant has transitioned from intimate destination dining into a multi-floor culinary institution exuding elegance throughout its refined ambiance. Founder Kenneth A. Himmel helped initiate a modern renaissance of fine dining, and in turn established a mahogany-paneled, green marble-accented, brass-detailed landmark.
“When we started this restaurant in 1983, there wasn’t really anything like it in Boston, and we opened to a four-star review in The Boston Globe,” explains Jay Murray, executive chef of Grill 23. Chef Murray, who has been at Grill 23 since 1998, helped to usher in a new era for steakhouse culture, one with an uncompromising level of quality but an eye for conscious consumption as well.
“We never want to be too locked into anything,” asserts Chef Murray. “We always wanted to keep our steakhouse roots, but we decided to switch things up a bit and stay progressive. So our menu has a lot of steakhouse staples and favorites, but we also have a constantly evolving menu, beyond just specials, to offer the patrons more variety and it has been that way ever since.”
Chef Murray offers two concepts within Grill 23: one, A la Carte, features timeless dishes flawlessly executed, while the Grill 23 Signature Specials offer more innovative, stylized approaches to creative surf and turf. First and foremost, however, the Grill 23 name is synonymous with great steak amongst Bostonians, and its reputation for using only prime, all-natural, dry-aged beef could easily be capitalized upon, but the company has shied away from expansion. “We don’t want to be a chain steakhouse,” asserts Murray. “I think we flirted with the idea of opening a second location in Las Vegas at one point, but in the end it just wasn’t of interest to us and I think it worked out for the best that we didn’t.”
Balancing Luxury and Responsibility
Grill 23 sources all of its beef from Brandt Beef in California and coordinates with local farms and fishermen to supply it with the freshest in-season produce and dayboat seafood, helping to distance itself from the chain steakhouse image and rooting the restaurant’s identity further in the local, luxury market.
“Maybe we were one of the first luxury steakhouses in Boston, but that didn’t last very long,” laughs Murray. “Eventually, the big chain restaurants like Morton’s Steakhouse and all the rest came in and it created a lot of competition for us. The sheer number of restaurants just exploded in the mid ’90s and it became clear to us that Boston still wanted a local steakhouse. It was around this time that we switched to using exclusively beef from Brandt Beef that has been produced without hormones, without antibiotics, with a strong emphasis on humane treatment and sustainability, which none of our competition can say. We’re also one of the only restaurants in town to work extensively with local farmers.”
Working with an increasing number of sustainable local suppliers was a big move for the company, but Murray maintains that it was not done cynically to court any particular market. “Whether or not we source our produce locally is not of particular importance to an upscale steakhouse patron.  We do a lot of business with the local farmers here when the season is in and I wish we could do it year-round, but not everybody comes to a steakhouse to eat kale,” remarks Murray. “The idea was never to make that our niche. There are plenty of other restaurants in the area that specialize in that, but we just do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Future Growth
The food at Grill 23 has constantly garnered accolades from publications both local and national, and with an increase in patrons looking for “authoritatively flavored” cuisine has come expansion. Grill 23 has not only stayed consistent in both service and succulence, but has essentially doubled its seating over the years to accommodate larger parties and private events for loyal customers. “We went from seating 270 to being able to seat around 520 diners,” explains Murray. “A lot of that extra space was just in creating private function spaces, but we added an entire second floor to the main dining room in 2000.”
The attractive space has served Grill 23 and its patrons well, and its clubby atmosphere continues to draw even more regulars into the fold. With this in mind the restaurant will not be focusing on further expansion at the moment, though it is considering both renovations and the launch of retail product. All of this is dependent on the economy, but is poised to come at a very memorable time for Grill 23.
“Our 30th anniversary is coming up and we’ll hopefully be doing something to celebrate that, but for the more immediate future I think we’ll be giving the restaurant a bit of a makeover to get us through the next 30 years,” says Murray.
Showcasing the best base ingredients in forward-thinking presentations, Grill 23 & Bar has an understanding and appreciation for the region that should assure many meaty years of success ahead.