It was standing room only with customers three deep at the bar Monday night as The Palm officially raised the curtain on its $5 million renovation and expansion. If the energy level and enthusiasm of customers on opening night was any indication, the steakhouse is set to rock and roll.
As early as 6 o'clock, regulars and newcomers, eager to get a look-see at the new 9,000 square foot digs, were already raising the din to party levels. In the dining room, regulars such as Sherry and Johnny Chen were joined by Fu Nig and Aaron Chen in one of the sleek red leather, tufted booths, all four ordering lobster dinners. Their obvious glee at the refurbished setting was matched by that of The Palm co-chairman and third generation co-owner Wally Ganzi.
"We got rid of the cigar smoke. The smoke really offended a lot of people in our private dining room."
He and wife Sandy, along with other Palm execs, had flown in from headquarters in Washington D.C. for the opening festivities. "I think it's actually our nicest restaurant that we've ever built in our lives," Ganzi said. "I've been doing this for 50 years, we're in the third generation. We opened this restaurant (in Houston) in 1978 which I thought was beautiful."
The original steakhouse was opened by the Ganzi and Bozzi families in New York in 1926. With the re-opening of the Houston location, the families (Bozzi represented by fourth generation Bruce Bozzi Jr., the group's executive vice president) brought in Monsignor Frank Rossi to deliver a blessing, which he did, complete with prayer and holy water.
The Houston renovation is the prototype for redesign of the group's restaurants across the country. "What we tried to do was combine the old and the new," Ganzi said. "Meaning that I don't want to offend the older customers who liked The Palm for what it was. But also you have to pay attention to the new young customers who are coming in.
"So we tried to combine the feel of both here . . . We've hired a young crew to go along with the old crew, a combination again of both, a mix that I think is going to go great."
Case in point, executive director Jimmy Martin, whom Ganzi convinced to leave New York in the 1970s to head up the Houston operation. Thirty-five years later Martin remains at the helm, now assisted by general manager Scott Sieck, most recently of Del Frisco's Grille. With their team well-trained, service ran at the A+ level.
The Palm regulars will recognize familiar design touches including the caricature mural of notables and Houston-centric images. Former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Becca Cason Thrash and Jack Rains are among the personalties pictured along with images of oil rigs, the space shuttle, Reliant Stadium and a spaghetti bowl of freeways.
The restaurant was able to expand, now with seating for 320, by taking over the space next door once occupied by a cigar shop. And that was a double bonus according to Ganzi.
"We got rid of the cigar smoke," he said. "The smoke really offended a lot of people in our private dining room."
The kitchen, under direction of executive chef Ricardo Ramirez, hummed Monday night with orders for filet, bone-in ribeye and lobster topping the popularity chart. Part of the appeal of the lobster might have been the Summer Lobster dinner for two, priced at $79.95, offered through Aug. 31.