Michael Lomonaco is a New Yorker through and through. From his time at Windows of the World to Center Bar NYC, Chef Lomonaco has engrained himself in New York City’s culinary industry. Michael is now in the midst of Porter House Bar and Grill‘s 10 year anniversary.
Porter House has just undergone an extensive top to bottom renovation and is now in celebration mode for their 10 year anniversary! Total Food Service had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Lomonaco to catch up on all things food.
What is your latest and greatest?
Well, we have been here now for ten years. Four years ago we opened another location near the Time Warner Center on the same floor. I have a place called Center Bar, which is a craft cocktail lounge/piano bar. There’s piano music in there five nights a week with some great jazz players playing the American songbook. We offer small plates of food that are very different from what we’re serving at Porter House. We have two operations running side-by-side now for the last four years. I think the really big news is, not only is it our tenth anniversary, but we took the time in February to close for about four weeks to do a major upgrade and renovation of the dining room here at Porter House.
Can you go into the extent of the renovations?
We had spent the year in planning the renovation with our architect and design team from Jeffrey Beers International. Jeffrey was the architect who designed the restaurant originally in 2006 and we thought this would be a great time, for our 10th anniversary to do a big upgrade. So we did a little bit more than a year of planning with the architects and all of the pre-planning with the contractors to be able to close. In that month we did an upgrade to the dining room that included new flooring, new wall materials, new color scheme, new lighting, new chairs, and new banquettes. The bar and lounge area has been completely redesigned, with marble and granite bar top. We were able to keep the original wood that goes throughout the restaurant. Everything else has really changed to a very much more modern, contemporary look, which really brightened it and lightened it. We have gotten a great response to the dining room, which is the restaurant and the private dining room. And the lounge and the bar area has been changed in a really impactful way so that people feel that they’re in a newer space. We were able to use the wine cabinet to have a new wine feature, a wall of wine, in which we are able to partially divide the lounge area from the dining area so that it really is two distinctly different environments.
Why did you decide to undergo the renovations?
We kind of changed our name a little bit, so what we did was re-brand ourselves as Porter House Bar and Grill. This is a big change because we have felt more than anything that we have great steaks. We have a great beef program with dry-aged prime beef that we have been serving over the last ten years and of course it is the most popular thing we serve. We also serve a lot of seafood and we’ve had a tremendous amount of success with other dishes on our menu, including game dishes we serve in the fall and in the winter months and including things like pasta and risotto with white truffles that we do now. We are just starting truffle season so this rebranding was meant to broaden how people view us. It’s just been a great and successful program. These renovations provided us with a tremendous opportunity for us to move forward into the next ten years. Also letting us take the restaurant in some other direction, broaden the appeal and the outreach. We’ve been consistently busy over these last ten years and the restaurant has had the opportunity to build a lot of great friends and followers who return very frequently to dine with us. In April, we threw a cocktail party and invited some of our regulars to see it before other people did. We received a great reaction for everything from the color scheme to the comfort of the chairs.
How have the tastes of your customers changed?
We’re focused on the pleasure of the guest, the comfort of the guest, hospitality, and the welcome. Food is really the most important factor in all of this, I like making people feel comfortable and welcome them with the kind of food that they would like to enjoy. I think that the restaurant business always keeps growing and changing, and for us, our guests have been more and more interested in trying other things. In our case, we redesigned the menus, to highlight our strengths.
So that’s a very encouraging thing, now appetizers, first courses, people really are responding to this new menu. And for our anniversary month of October, we’ve done a tenth-anniversary menu. To celebrate our anniversary we did a four-week series of menus that last week, featured dishes from our first menu. So we went back ten years to when we opened, and we pulled some of the dishes that are no longer on our menu and served the way we did in 2006. We have had a great time with it, and they sold really well, and the guests really responded too. They loved that it’s our anniversary and this is something we made ten years ago.
We even did a monkfish that we did as a T-bone, a monkfish porterhouse. This week we’re doing something that reflects where we are now and as an American grill. So, for instance, a classic New York grill which is beef and lamb and pork. A seafood grill which is an assortment of seafood and shellfish all grilled and roasted together with some marinade and sauces and things like that. Later on this week, we’re going to do a mixed game grill, venison and duck and quail. Mixed grill is just kind of a lost art, you don’t see it much in restaurants but it’s something we like to do at this time every year. We have wagyu on our menu now and it does very well. We offer both a Japanese and American Wagyu selection. They are surprisingly successful. I mean to say that you can come in for one thing and find something else that appeals to you. Not only our regulars do that, but people who come in for the first time.
What are your thoughts on celebrity purveyors like Pat LaFrieda?
We work with Pat LaFrieda literally every day. We have a very close business partnership with them. We count on them, we rely on Pat LaFreida and they’ve done an unbelievable job for us. As big as they are, they work with us on a very one-on-one basis and they have been able to help us build a beef program that is really the best of the best that’s out there. I know that throughout the year they are selecting beef even before it goes to market. They are selecting beef in the Midwest through their chain of suppliers. They are selecting beef specifically, typically for us. They do the dry aging for us. I don’t have the physical room to build an aging room at Porter House. They have unbelievable facilities, and they age our beef for us. This is something that is really important to our program; the dry-aged prime beef is so beautifully aged, so carefully aged by them. They select beef for us and by the time it gets to them it’s still in their chain of supply. They then set it aside; they tag it with our name, hold it in their box, and age for between 20 and 28 days depending on the particular cut. Then we order from them, we order on a daily basis. We get these supplies in six days a week. The beef comes in and we break down these subprimal cuts into individual steaks. They’ve been for us an unbelievable partner in helping us to create a great big environment. They also do a celebrity chef Burger blend for me, that if you go to LaFrieda you see the burger blend, at a premium location like ours they provide an important element.
What would you like to see the new NYC Hospitality Council do for restaurateurs?
We’re living in a time where more and more people are feeling encouraged to open restaurants. They don’t all have to be in Manhattan either. Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx people are really opening their own personal restaurants. These are restaurants that reflect their personality, their personal style of cooking, and their personal food culture. That’s what makes New York one of the most exciting places to be for dining. New York is at the top of the world in high class dining. You can come to New York and experience some of the best foods from around the world that might be out in Jamaica in Queens, or Flushing, or in the heart of Brooklyn some place. I think as a chef, we’re always on a look out for, what are people eating now, what’s in, what’s new or newly open in New York City.
The restaurant business is one of the most crucial businesses to New York City life and it speaks to building a community around a restaurant. I would like to see this new council understand this aspect of restaurants being at the center of a community. To help them and help restaurants be able to stabilize work within all the regulations. That the different departments like the building departments, the health department, and all those regulations have to be met by these small business owners. They need advocates in city government that can help them get started. Because those businesses are so important to those neighborhoods where they will open and operate throughout the city. And take some of the bureaucracy out of it and put some humanity into it and help that small business owner get started. That would be an exciting aspect for this council.
Why is New York City so important to you?
This is my hometown, I was born here, and I was born in Brooklyn. I wanted to focus my energy on having a New York restaurant that was my home base. And after everything that happened coming out of 9/11 and the city rebuilding itself. I was also rebuilding and having a home-based restaurant was the most important aspect to me because I love the exchange that I, as a chef, have with my guests. I wanted that more than anything and to have a location that would be a part of New York. A restaurant has always been the place where people could rest, restore themselves, invigorate themselves, reinvigorate themselves and how can we help them do that?
One thing I am happy to see is, that great food can be cooked in the most casual and relaxed of circumstances. And that is gaining more and more acceptance, and you’ve got places like Williamsburg and Brooklyn, which have become a verb around the world. I’m going to Brooklyn with my restaurant; they say things like that in Rome and Paris. What I think it means is that New York is having an international impact, and one of those things is just being able to take a very casual, relaxed atmosphere and make great food in it.