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Restaurants / Openings

Houston’s Own New York Restaurant Takes Shape in the Historic Texaco Building

Benjamin Berg Brings in Big-Time Chef Talent, Envisions a Manhattan Vibe

BY // 02.06.18
photography Fulton Davenport

Benjamin Berg is all about wide open spaces. Berg, owner of the expanding B&B Butchers restaurant empire, has set his sights on yet another new restaurant. His approach: location, location, location. He’s spurred on by the vision he has for the space, which struck him even before he began contemplating a menu.

Berg plans to open a new restaurant named Benjamin in the downtown luxury high-rise The Star at 1111 Rusk in late summer or early fall. Recognize that address? The Star restored the Texaco building, an iconic Houston landmark that’s 102 years old.

“I fell in love with the space,” Berg tells PaperCity. He was drawn to the historic building instantly, and his New York roots sealed the deal.

“To be honest, I probably shouldn’t have, but when I found out that the original architects were the guys Warren & Wetmore, architects of Grand Central Station, I kind of thought ‘I have to do this being from New York.’ ”

Berg acquired the space back in May. “I found the space and I just loved it,” he says, “then kind of started developing the restaurant around the space.”

An “approachable, upscale” restaurant is what’s moving in. Something “somewhat grand but simple” in Berg’s words. In contrast to B&B Butchers, this new restaurant will have more European influence. Berg has done “really big menus, this is going to be a little more refined of a menu.”

Being a Berg creation, “obviously it will have meat,” but you can expect more game, more fish, and more composed dishes. There will be freedom in menu development that he hasn’t experienced before.

“There’s definitely a template for steakhouses — dishes you have to have,” Berg says, referring to B&B and the steakhouses where he has worked in New York, Las Vegas and Mexico City.

And with steak, you tend to walk out way too full, he notes. “But when you design your menu and your dishes and your proportions of food, and you walk out and you’re not hungry and you’re not too full, it’s just perfect — I love that,” Berg says. “Very few people can pull that off.”

Daniel Boulud is one of the few who can in Berg’s estimation.

Berg’s brother, Daniel Berg, has been cooking with the world renowned chef at Daniel in Manhattan — and now Berg’s convinced him to move to Houston and develop his new restaurant’s menu.

Benjamin Berg can approach that sweet spot of full-but-not-too-full more easily without steakhouse standards such as mashed potatoes on the menu. When you are not operating under a strict designation, “you can be way more creative. You don’t really have to be trapped a little bit,” he notes.

But with that freedom comes a challenge. “You have to be very conscientious that the menu makes sense,” Benjamin Berg says.

He imagines having some items like his personal favorites. “I’m a sucker for foie gras,” he notes, and “I love a really great Nicoise salad. But honestly, I’m going to let my chefs go for it.”

Houston’s Best Restaurant Settings

The total restaurant experience is about more than just great food, of course. There are a lot of places with good food, but an outstanding overall experience is harder to come by.

“Great atmosphere, great experience. Restaurants are getting way more atmospheric,” Benjamin Berg says.

Berg believes he owes part of B&B’s success to its atmosphere. The first B&B’s building didn’t scream out as a steakhouse. Brick walls, exposed wooden beams, and steel support columns stood in place of the traditional steakhouse leather and dark wood.

Benjamin will also bring a distinctive atmosphere that surprises at first glance, but it’s a world away from B&B. It’s all about openness, airiness. Think Eleven Madison Park in New York.

Benjamin Berg interior
The restaurateur looks forward to the openness and airiness of Benjamin.

Whereas the original B&B measures in at 7,500 square feet, Benjamin will have that much room in its mezzanine alone. The downstairs boasts 10,000 square feet of space, bringing the total to nearly 18,000.

The space at The Star “has that real presence to it,” Berg believes — from its exterior arches, to its tall windows and high ceilings. “It will be very airy,” he says.

The tables got a little close at B&B. Benjamin brings “a more elegant dining experience in a really approachable manner,” Berg says.

“The potential of it is amazing.”

Imagine a dining room that can seat 180 to 200, a bar that can seat 60, and private dining rooms with capacity for more than 400 diners. Berg is looking at the big picture, and room for private events was a real draw.

“For everything Houston has, there’s a gap here in private event space,” he says. For parties of 200 and up, the options are limited to hotels and country clubs. “You don’t have the options,” Berg says.

“One of the big drivers with the space was the ability to do great restaurant-quality events” in a historic, iconic building. Berg hopes to host everything from weddings to charity balls to business functions.

Benjamin will have two kitchens, one downstairs and one upstairs. The mezzanine kitchen will be reserved for private parties. The private kitchen will prepare a more extensive menu than people normally expect for catering.

“I really want the private event to not lock people in,” Berg says. “I want to be able to give a lot of choices.”

Saving Carmelo’s

Benjamin is just one of the many moving pieces in Berg’s expanding restaurant world right now. He opened a second B&B in Fort Worth. But that wasn’t a case of space sparking concept. It kind of just came together.

“It was nothing I was looking to do,” Berg says. “Basically, they came to me and it was more I believed in the project they were doing in Fort Worth and the ownership of the land. I just thought it would be a really nice fit.”

Another new Berg acquisition Carmelo’s happened the same kind of way — unexpected, right place, right time. Berg acquired the Italian spot in late December. He stepped in and saved the restaurant from closing.

“It all happened very last minute,” Berg says. Houston Restaurant Weeks founder Cleverley Stone initially approached him. She shared that Carmelo Mauro was planning to retire, and asked if Benjamin had any interest.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to him,’ ” Berg says. The two met in the first week of December. Benjamin Berg was taken with “the possibilities and potential.”

They spoke about numbers about a week later. A few days before Christmas, it was finalized. It just clicked: Berg loves Italian food, he lives in the area. Berg and his brother Daniel will work together to more than double the size of the existing menu at Carmelo’s, but “we’re going to keep all the popular Carmelo’s dishes.”

There will be a lot more pastas and a little more Roman style while respecting the dishes that people have gotten accustomed to and enjoy. A new bar is on the way, with construction happening in stages so that Carmelo’s can stay open.

Not for nothing, Berg appreciates the Carmelo’s space. “The space has great bones and an amazing kitchen,” he says.

Benjamin Berg is certainly carving out his own space on the Texas restaurant scene, one ambitious project after another.

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