Q&A with the face behind the name: Henry

Since opening its doors in 1999, HENRY’s has earned a reputation as a classy yet familial neighborhood joint, frequented by musicians, artists, and members of the Upper West Side’s social elite. With a grand piano at its center and cool brown lighting, it manages to retain a sports bar appeal alongside its more refined dining setting.

It’s not uncommon to see the owner, Henry Rinehart, making the rounds come dinnertime — to ensure his guests are enjoying themselves. One recent afternoon, I sat down with Henry by one of his restaurant’s outside tables. He smiled and waved at customers, friends, and acquaintances as they walked past; he is indeed far more than the owner of a posh eatery in a ritzy part of town.

Tell me about your path towards becoming a restaurateur.

I grew up in Williamstown, Massachusetts aspiring to be an actor — working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival during summers. I went to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, after having done high school here in the city at the School of Performing Arts.

I’m of the generation of the first college-educated service professionals in our country, like Denny Meyer of Union Square Café. Historically, it’s been an immigrant business. There used to be no professionalized training for restaurants in the U.S; there weren’t really degree programs for my college years to study this. I fell into this through working in restaurants as I worked my way through college. Instead of leaving college with debt, I left with a pile of cash! I worked about 30 hours a week as a bartender, made about $90,000 a year, and finished on the honor roll of my university. When I left college, I worked as a professional actor for about 4 or 5 years.

At one point, I was in London, which was experiencing explosive growth and incredibly dynamic restaurant businesses throughout the city. I owned a night club over there, and I just got into the business and fell in love with it. When I came back to the states in the mid-90s, New York City was going through the same thing. In 1999, I opened HENRY’s.

Did you always intend to create a community fixture?

I worked a lot in fine dining as well as in casual restaurants, and I always found myself a lot more comfortable in casual restaurants. I love exquisite food and I love “fancy schmancy” restaurants, but I have a limited tolerance for them. The everyday restaurant: a French bistro, or an Italian trattoria are the restaurants that really spoke to me. For the beginning of my life in New York, I lived on the Upper West Side, and I knew we lacked a neighborhood restaurant that was big, grand and dynamic but that also was cozy and intimate like Cheers-they know your name when you walk in the door! And we didn’t have any great bars with dim lighting, sexy cocktails and sexy people and the neighborhood responded immediately the very first day we opened the doors.

How has HENRY’s changed over the years?

We’ve had several significant changes over the years. You always have to serve people what they want, otherwise you don’t have enough people to serve. When I first started, we were very casual and very inexpensive. Then as the neighborhood got fancier, we got fancier. We went from having gingham table cloths to having beautiful sandalwood tablecloths, we served more sauces with our food, and everything was a little bit more elevated. After 9/11, everyone really wanted to dine out. They didn’t know how much longer the world was going to last! They really calmed their nerves with food and drink. Then when the recession hit, we went back to gingham table cloths, we made our menu a little smaller, we reduced prices, we emphasized pasta over steak and fish, and it’s hovered there for the past 5 or 10 years. But you’re always innovating, trying new things, and listening to your guests… they’re great! I had a woman last night ask for a dish that the chef made about four years ago!

I heard that you personally organized the memorial of one your customers inside the restaurant recently. Do you do that sort of thing often?

A guest of mine died very suddenly at a young age the week before last. He had been a guest from when I first opened — I saw him five to ten times a week for seventeen years, and I was the officiant at his wedding. One thing about being a community restaurant in a neighborhood for over fifteen years is you see life, death, and birth over and over again; you see kids grow up and go to college, people move away and send you cards. You’re a very integral part of the community when you’re as lucky and as good as we are.

All the local churches, temples, and synagogues know HENRY’s. When these big life events happen, they come to us. When my parents moved to Central Park West 38 years ago, we were lucky enough to be neighbors with the famous jazz drummer Max Roach. Max sadly died many years later, but he used to spend a lot of time at HENRY’s. One sleepy summer afternoon like this, after his memorial, people walked out of Riverside Church and asked: “Where should we go?”

“Let’s go to HENRY’s!” they said. “That’s where Max would want to go.”

You want to be around a familiar place where you can sit with your friends, have good food and beverage, and relax. We sadly do a lot of memorials, but we probably do as many baptism parties, baby showers, and graduations.

I read that you have regular music performances. Have they been going on for a while?

Prior to HENRY’s, the space was a famous jazz club name Birdland which closed about two years before HENRY’s opened. We still have a great jazz spot here on the block — I see the owner just pulled up — so I never really wanted to feature jazz, as I never wanted to compete with them. Our main music is vocal music, with Stephen Blier (who has a wonderful organization called the New York Festival of Song, which celebrates classically trained voices doing popular song) I’d seen his work a number of times — he’d become a very regular guest of mine. I was quite moved by his work. He presents a series here called Sing for your Supper.

Do you think the music here attracts a different clientele than you’re used to?

It started because I’m serving artists. I have amazing, incredibly talented artists all throughout the dining room and so I want to give them an opportunity to perform, and we have a great space for it. It’s a truly unique space, visually. The acoustics are incredibly warm and clear, and it’s been a really successful room for theatrical and musical performances.

Why did you name the restaurant after yourself?

There’s a great tradition in French bistros and Italian trattorias to go to Luigi’s or Chez Lucien… that tradition’s great — I love it. If you go down to Kentucky Fried Chicken, you can’t ask: “Hey, is the colonel here?” But you can walk into HENRY’s and say: “Hey, you used to know my high school girlfriend!” or something like that. You can personalize your dining experience in a way that a person’s name on a restaurant does immaculately. I hated the idea of having my name on a restaurant, but my partners come from that tradition and they really insisted. I couldn’t come up with a better name! So it ended up as HENRY’s and it’s been a great success. It makes me a minor one-named celebrity… I’ve become like Lady Gaga! I love serving my community and it’s worked out really well. It’s the appropriate style of name for a restaurant like mine.

Edited for length and relevance.