Michael Lomonaco Makes Restaurants Thrive In The Most Unusual Places

It's a beautiful morning in Manhattan, and Michael Lomonaco is sitting at one of the best tables in his restaurant Porter House, looking out on a sun-splashed Columbus Circle and Central Park. As ever, the chef and restaurateur is ebullient, easygoing. He's having a chat about what he loves doing most: serving people great food.

The occasion, timing-wise, is the upcoming World Cocktail Day, Monday May 13, when Lomonaco will team with renowned mix master Dale DeGroff to create a dinner pairing the chef's crowd-pleasing food with the bartender's always satisfying drinks. That, and Lomonaco's wanting to use the occasion to let the world know about Center Bar, the cocktail-focused offshoot of Porter House also on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center. 

Oh yeah, about that. Lomonaco opened Porter House in the then–newly built Time Warner Center in 2006, taking on a 140-plus-seat upscale steakhouse concept on the fourth floor of a giant luxurious mall. It was his first high-profile gig since the 9/11 attack destroyed Windows On The World, the restaurant he ran for several years atop the World Trade Center. So he's no stranger to overseeing restaurants in conspicuous places. He talks about his knack for being the center of attention in the center of the world, his more distant past as a chef at Le Cirque in its glory days and at the famed '21' Club, and the fallout from 9/11 and the loss of Windows On The World in this candid conversation (the interview has been condensed and edited).

First off, what are you and Dale DeGroff doing for your World Cocktail Day dinner at the James Beard House?

Dale DeGroff invited me. We put a whole dinner together with six courses of food and five cocktails. We're pairing food with these cocktails.

Is that difficult for a chef?

When I was first coming up, spirits were kind of looked down upon in the fine dining world — whatever that is. Historically, something was called "fine dining" and people who truly appreciated food shunned cocktails and were wine-centric. Martinis and those things never went out of style, so I just think it's [just that] the idea of having a cocktail and then enjoying the food was antithetical back then. Cocktail and food pairing is an interesting concept because you can really find flavors that you can compare and contrast that are different from wine profile flavors. 

Tell me about Center Bar, which is right outside the doors here. This is your first offshoot of Porter House?

In a way, yes. The thing is that Center Bar is a reaction...the space was available. Initially when the [Time Warner] building was built, nothing was designed for that space. We opened Porter House in 2006 and there was nothing going on there. In 2008, there was a wine bar concept. That closed in 2009 and I took the opportunity to prepare a proposal for Center Bar, which is really a classic cocktail lounge in many ways. It's a cocktail and food experience. We have a small kitchen and are preparing food completely differently from Porter House.

Why did it take so long to open?

Well, it took almost two years. We opened in October of 2012. We designed something that would be comfortable and take advantage of the dramatic views of Central Park and Columbus Circle. It's a bigger cocktail program — we have 15 to 20 house cocktails, including a whole list of champagne cocktails. It is an extensive assortment of classic cocktails from pre-Prohibition to more current, popular cocktails.

Let's start talking more about Porter House and opening inside Time Warner. You have a track record for running restaurants in big tourist destinations, which goes against the idea of the intimate Manhattan experience. How do you feel about this?

Honestly, it's great. I'm thrilled to have been open for seven years. My partner is [real estate developer Kenneth A.] Himmel and he is primarily responsible for what he calls "Restaurant Collection." [This include's Thomas Keller's Per Se, Masa and Landmarc, among others.] However it sounded to the public ear eight or nine years ago, he had a very focused plan that it would not dumb down its food selections because it was in such a dramatic, public area — shopping, hotel, residential and commerce. His idea for a dramatic collection of restaurants was really a bold move. When I first came here in 2006, there was a big space; we were able to humanize the space and take advantage of the obvious: We have great big windows with a great view.

Probably one of the most dramatic views in the world.

But it's not just the view — it's also the light. It's how it affects you; you are in a different place. My goal is for people to enjoy something in this public space. You can't eat the view, but at some point you see it and acknowledge it and it becomes part of your experience. Our primary focus is on the food, the beverages, the wine and the service. Some operators work against things like a view — it's not in keeping with the small, dark, intimate dining experience. 

I was here this past Thursday night and it was almost shocking to me how buzzy it was. Does it ever surprise you how intense the energy is in this room?

It's true, I agree. It's like that on most nights. We begin with convivial hospitality — those are not old-fashioned values. Those are real values that I put with my team into the restaurant every day.

Where did you learn that, though?

We call you, by being here, our "guest." It's really important that even though there is a commercial transaction that goes on, there are certain things that you expect of us, and one is that you are taken care of. Your comfort is important to us. No matter what else our intention is — our food and wine intention — we want you to feel welcome and at home here. This is not only an entertainment experience, which is a new concept to restaurants over the last 20 years or so.

Could you ever run a restaurant that sold tickets to eat, for instance?

[Laughs.] That's quite a dramatic idea. They are selling tickets to an experience and I could see doing that. We sell tickets when we sell tickets to the Beard House — I think it frees the creativity around the chef. Grant [Achatz, with Next] in Chicago is freeing himself from a set menu and recreating the same thing from month to month. That would be a great experience — I have a creative arts background from college.

From where?

I went to Brooklyn College in the 1970s and was a theater major. I had my share of time on stage, doing a lot of plays. I did musicals, too. With all the television that I've done over time [Lomonaco starred on shows for The Travel Channel and the Food Network], it's become natural for me to be in front of a camera. It wasn't just teaching but it was a different kind of food television than it is today. It was really about sharing whatever knowledge I may have about something with the viewer. You come to the restaurant, and it's one plate at a time and we focus on you. That's all the kitchen can do — no matter how many plates are moving out of the kitchen, you can only focus on one dish at a time as a chef and as an operator. It's important to keep the single diner's experience in mind. 

You've helped create four pretty classic restaurants in New York City, but they don't really fit the mold of the new trend or whatever. What do you think of some of current trends?

I'm always interested in what's new.

Do you think people like David Chang are interesting to watch?

I really do have a great time in the Momofuku restaurants. [Lomonaco praises the counter idea, which he traces back to NYC's luncheonettes, for showing diners what goes on in the kitchen.] David Chang and a whole new generation of people opened up not only the world of food to their diners but have really changed the role of the chef in the industry as entrepreneurs. They've moved the chef to a more central position, which means that the chef is more able to be in control of the whole experience, and that's a great innovation. In past generations, it was the owner of the restaurant who was really more of the manager and controlling that experience. Now, those two characters have really come together and the chef's domain is really everywhere in the room: from the music played to the tabletop to even how food is served at the table.

You make a lot of appearances on the floor here and there is often a pretty powerful coup of diners in your dining room. How important is that to you as a chef right now for you to go out and "touch the table"?

I have a really great team, both in the front of house and the back of house. The front of house manages the guest experience at the table and the back of house is preparing the meals. I'm in both places because I care equally about that experience. "Touching tables" is really a classic term because it means personalizing the experience for people. My doing that as a chef/owner is about making it a more personal experience, to know the guest better, to see the experience. I want people to feel like they are in my home, and the only way to do that is to keep an eye on my house. 

You have some big personalities here, especially being in the same building as Time Warner. Does that make it a difficult restaurant to run?

We do have a great following. In seven years, we've been fortunate to create a guest list of people who are here frequently. It's a comfortable room and they're just people like everyone else, whether they're in media or business. Once they get comfortable, they may ask for something that they particularly like and we get to know their likes and dislikes. 

So you're not sending Anderson Cooper French fries? He's probably off carbs...

[Laughs.] We do keep track of that. People come here to get the meal that they want and that's one of the things that is deceiving in a way. Porter House is more than a steakhouse – it's an American grill or a chophouse experience, because we have a broader menu than most steakhouses do. We serve more fish and have more seafood choices and we change the menu somewhat frequently, running seasonal specials. I came up in a time where the American chef was opening American restaurants and the question is still posed, "What's an American restaurant?" An American restaurant is, first, a comfortable and more casual place. What the last 15 or 20 years has done is casualize dining. We use linen, but we don't use linen on all of our tables. We're fussy but not overly fussy. 

You are probably taking what you learned from classic French technique – working at Le Cirque and getting your "big break" at 21 Club – and applying it to this kind of new way of thinking of American food, right?

That's exactly right. There's an order and a reason to that. As a young guy in college, I was really focused on theater. While I was never going to be a Shakespearean actor, the classics and classical training was what we did in college. Also, I'm self-taught as a musician.

What do you play?

I play guitar, but my first instrument in junior high school was violin. I never forgot those lessons – that's where I learned the basics of the structure of music and how to read music. When I went to culinary school, that's where I kind of reversed course. I was tending bar and driving a cab, and those things were to support myself as an actor. I liked hospitality and the restaurant world and I loved eating and dining and wine.

Where did you study culinary?

I went to City Tech, which is part of City University — New York City College of Technology. I was steered in that direction by Patrick Clark, who was a great American chef with a French-schooled background. That's what turned me on to City Tech – I could get the training that I needed right here in the city and be part of the scene. My school background was in fine French cooking and that was something that really interested me because I studied French as a high school and college student. I was a bit of a Francophile and still am. [We talk more about how Lomonaco put American spins on French cooking, especially in his first job running a kitchen at '21' Club.] It's true that I entered cooking as a chef with a classical French background. I worked for Alain Sailhac and I worked for Daniel Boulud. Both were at Le Cirque at different times, and they were my mentors.

We hear so much about Le Cirque and the people that came up through there. What's your recollection about it? Did it have a certain vibe to it and was it an intense experience to go through that?

It was all of those things! When you think of all of the chefs who have come through there and trained there — Le Cirque in the '80s was an amazing experience for chefs because it was a very demanding clientele. They were well traveled and their expectation of great food and great service always went together. Great service meant that they had great hospitality offered to them by Sirio Maccioni. Talk about hands-on, entrepreneurial owners! He was a guy who called his guests frequently, sent them notes and postcards, wished them well when they accomplished something and wrote to them when he hadn't seen them in awhile. The food was as important to Sirio, if not more so. He was, and still is, a great lover of cooking.

And the chefs?

I was there, Rick Moonen was there, Geoffrey Zakarian was there. I missed David Bouley – he was leaving as I was coming in. It was an unbelievably talented group of people cooking there in those days. Le Cirque was far and above one of the best restaurants in the world and had few competitors in New York.

I think it's pretty interesting that you have these younger guys opening up French restaurants downtown now. Do you see any correlation between Lafayette and Calliope now and the French scene in NYC back then?

I think what's old is new. This is a very significant moment, where now the current crop of chefs are looking back to see what is there and what they can mine out of the past, how they can reinterpret it and make it their own. Lafayette is going to be a great restaurant and I think it's going to do very well. The room, the décor, the way they put it together.

You've already been there?

Yes. And the food is great. It's very much is like a French café on the Boulevard Montparnasse. It is of that genre and yet the food is fresh and lively. 

Let's talk about steak. One of the things that I feel like is challenging about a steakhouse is that people who eat steak are going to want it to be really, really good because they're paying a premium for it and it's a special meal for them. How important is it to cook the steak correctly and what are some of the tricks you've learned over the years?

Having a good supply source. We've worked for years with Pat LaFrieda – they have been really instrumental at getting us the best prime beef available. It's natural, hormone-free, corn-fed prime beef. Then you get this very expensive product and we butcher it ourselves so that we can cut the steaks the way we like them. That hands-on experience is important in getting the right steaks to the table and that's why we continue to do that. Then you have to cook them and guests are very particular about how they want their steaks cooked — whatever they ask for, they know exactly what that means to them. It's a little bit of a tightrope.

What's the mood like in the kitchen when a steak gets sent back?

It happens on rare occasion — how could it not? You can't make everybody happy all the time. Our ethos is that what the guest has asked for is what we're going to give them. If it's overcooked, we have to start all over again. If what the guest requested is "medium rare" and it came out overcooked or they want it rarer than that... It's always better if they want more fire and we undercooked it! I think if anything, we try to err on that side and we're very specific in the kitchen about our cooks on line, our staff and also our service staff – about what rare, medium rare, medium mean. We're very specific and do tastings periodically with the staff to show them what that looks like. The mood in the kitchen is to take care of the guest and we never say no to anything.

What do you say to the guest then?

Of course, you never get confrontational with a guest and we want them to have exactly what they ordered. The best advice I can give to anybody is to share if it's not something you expected with either the waiter you have at your table or the manager in your room. It's always better to know rather than have people walk out disappointed. It's a give and take and goes two ways – we're very focused on that and very focused on correct temperatures. You have line cooks and always sous-chefs in the kitchen: there is always a chef in the kitchen. I'm here, Michael Ammirati, who is the chef de cuisine, is here, or one of the sous-chefs is always here. Not a steak leaves the kitchen that hasn't passed through one of the executive chef staff. 

You've been through a lot in the city and your dining rooms have almost been samples of society in the city. Can you tell the mood of the city in a way through the room you are seeing?

That's a really good question. Anywhere you go, you can probably detect it. We get a real cross-section of New Yorkers here. We have a very local crowd at Porter House and now at Center Bar. You can judge the mood of people and it runs the gamut — it runs through election season, playoff series, ups and downs in the stock market. 2008 was a tough time and I think it goes back to one of our core missions — one of the things that we are here to do is give them a place to rest and relax.

Anything specific you've seen?

People may drink less wine and more cocktails, and this is one of those things that we saw in 2008 and 2009 – people were drinking stronger drinks. But we're not here to judge — everyone's wine sales were down. Maybe wine looks too celebratory, and so might a martini, but a beer might be the thing. Restaurants really are a place where people can refresh themselves and that's a historical, essential part of restaurants that hasn't changed. That element – no matter where it is – is still a diversion. Whether you want to call it entertainment or escapism, whether it's here or in Williamsburg or somewhere in Chicago – there isn't anything else we have in our culture that does it quite the same way as restaurants. They feed us, they give us a place to eat and drink and relax with friends and have a laugh. We could see the climate changing in 2008 and 2009, and there was certainly a lot of talk in 2010 and 2011 about where we were and what was going on. I think you can see whatever is happening in the news in your dining room from day to day.

Did what happened at Windows on the World — losing many members of your restaurant staff — ever test your resolve to stay in this business?

That was, of course, a dramatic moment in the nation and in the world. People who had never even been to New York were affected by that. 9/11 had a huge impact on New York and how we feel and think about things. For me, it had a great personal impact and my resolve was tested in that I was offered jobs in San Francisco two weeks later. I was offered a job in Chicago and LA and Vegas — all within a year. I had every opportunity to leave but I wasn't leaving the city I was born in. That's for sure.

That must have been harder than it sounds.

More than anything, I made a personal commitment to continue doing what I was doing and what my colleagues and friends who lost their lives on that day. My friends and colleagues who died on that day were doing exactly what we are doing now: they were in a restaurant doing their job, and what they were doing was welcoming the world. I made a personal commitment that that would be a big part of my life because that's how I honor their memory: by continuing to do what they were doing. That's probably had as much of a guiding light on where I am and what I'm doing as anything. There are other opportunities for me here in New York City and this is a business that I continue to love. How I can continue to do it here in the city is very important to me.

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This Food Republic Interview is presented by our friends at Ribera Wines