For the first two weeks of December, Benjy’s in the Village is partying like it’s 1995—literally. In honor of its 20th anniversary, the Houston institution is taking us back to the year it got its start, with specialty cocktails inspired by 1995 movies (e.g. Dangerous Minds, The Usual Suspects and Apollo 13) and dishes from its 1995 menu (e.g. an Asian-inspired surf and turf with a Szechuan-crusted steak, miso-marinated scallops, lime-ginger sauce and wasabi mashed potatoes). Benjy’s is even serving up these old school faves at their original prices.
Of course, no ‘90s throwback is complete without the iconic music and (often questionable) style. Owner and founder Benjy Levit concocted a ‘90s playlist with all the grunge, gangsta rap and synthy one-hit wonders any Gen-Xer could ask for. Plus, staff members are donning flannel, fanny packs and (fingers crossed) parachute pants that might make you think twice before calling the ‘90s the last great decade.
This full-blown, tongue-in-cheek time warp not only commemorates the restaurant’s past; it also heralds a new shift in its food and decor. With renovations and a revamped menu, it’s clear that Levit won’t allow Benjy's to rest on its laurels. “For this 20th anniversary, a big part of our focus has been on freshening up the décor…[while] staying true to our design aesthetic,” he says. From the beginning, Levit continues, “Benjy's wanted to stress high quality ingredients in a more casual atmosphere… The food, while simple, [holds] a level of sophistication. And so, we wanted to match the décor to that.”
Even now, Benjy's most recent facelift goes hand-in-hand with changes to its dinner menu. “What we’re doing,” Levit explains, “is going with a lighter [color] palette to match with the lighter food…we’re trying to simplify our dishes to let ingredients speak.” In other words, the restaurant’s shift into culinary minimalism (with a new seafood- and vegetable-centric menu) aligns with its altered ambiance (a simple scheme of muted greys and whites brightened by shades of green).
Interestingly enough, Levit originally planned Benjy's with a vegetable-centric menu in mind. Inspired by his experiences at a vegan cooking school in NYC, he’d intended to open a Houston restaurant that would be entirely plant-based—long before the clean-eating health craze of the 2010’s. “Initially [I’d planned Benjy's to have] my menu, my out-there décor and my out-there concept,” Levit explains. “The idea was to really push the envelope…but, rather than [Benjy's] being a statement just about me and what I believed in, it became a collaborative process with staff and with the neighborhood,” he continues. “We’ve wanted it to be a place where we listen to our customers—[while] also nudg[ing] them forward.”
It is this potent combination of adaptability and social awareness that has likely been the key to benjy’s success. As for the future, says Levit states, “we want to keep pushing the contact with the community and become a fixture. We hope to stay in a warm spot in people’s hearts…I hope this place is here longer than I am.”