Michael Feighery Steaks a Claim on Boston
by rebecca knight
Michael Feighery’s first job at Smith & Wollensky was as a butcher’s assistant at the original Manhattan restaurant. The year was 1986, and Feighery (pronounced “fury”) was fresh off the plane from Dublin.
“The place had an aura,” says Feighery, whose speech is a charming combination of an Irish brogue with undertones of a New York wiseguy. “The jackets, the size of the steak knives, the big wine glasses, the grumpy waiters—its reputation was huge. I thought, This is what I came to this country for. This was my shot.”
His shot, indeed: Today Feighery is president of Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, the classic steakhouse chain with nine restaurants in the US and almost 1,000 employees. Last year the company—which is owned by Bunker Hill Capital, a Boston-based private equity group—had table receipts totaling more than $65 million.
This is the first full summer that the company’s latest venture, a 10,000-square-foot restaurant on Atlantic Wharf, is open for business. The new eatery, which joins Boston’s first Smith & Wollensky, at the Castle in Back Bay, includes an expansive dining area with several private rooms, a marble bar, and a sun-soaked patio. “This is the best location in Boston,” he says. “It’s in the business district, it’s got waterfront dining, and it’s close to the tourist area.”
Its décor pays homage to the original Smith & Wollensky in New York City, but staid and stuffy it isn’t: The restaurant features glasspaneled peekaboo wine cellars, an eclectic mix of black-and-white photographs of celebrities, and quirky touches like bronze bookends shaped as boxing frogs that Feighery found at a local antiques gallery.
Of course the biggest draw is what made the restaurant famous in the first place: succulent, prime, dry-aged steaks. While rib eyes and filets are mainstays, Feighery presides over regular in-house tasting committees where he and the chefs fine-tune the menu with seasonal dishes and sides, often sourced with local ingredients. “We usually start with 20 items, refine it down to 12, and then we make six or eight adjustments,” he says.
Feighery, 47, has the distinguished looks of a maturing Hollywood star. He calls each line cook and waitperson by name; they know him simply as Mike. “A suit and tie don’t make you a manager,” he says. “They just make you a guy who owns a suit and tie.”
Born in London to landlords of a working-class pub, Feighery— the third of five children—spent his youth darting in and out behind the bar’s kitchen with his older brother and sister. His mother and father poured the beer, and waiters served English edibles.
But as the troubles began in Northern Ireland and violence spilled over into England, the city became a difficult place for his family. Feighery, who had a terrible stutter as a boy, was taunted. He once came home from school to find GO HOME, IRISH scrawled on his doorstep. His family moved to Ireland in 1974.
After completing school, Feighery got a job as a dishwasher and prep cook at the Black Board Restaurant, and later at Coffers Steakhouse in Dublin—a favorite haunt of young bankers, where he learned to pansear and make savory sauces, stock from scratch, and a perfect crust using herb rubs. Later, he was head chef at Rosleague Manor Hotel, a 20-room inn in Galway, where he followed the locavore philosophy long before the term entered the foodie lexicon. “Guests would handselect their vegetables from the garden, catch a fish in the ocean, or shoot game in the woods, and I would prepare it for dinner,” he says.
The job at Rosleague was important to Feighery for two reasons: He learned that food could be a career; and he fell in love with a waitress, the woman who would become his wife. “She was the best waitress I’ve ever seen,” he says. “No one juggles tables like she did.”
The two emigrated to the US in 1985, and Feighery went to work for Smith & Wollensky, where he quickly earned promotions: from butcher’s assistant to kitchen manager to floor manager. As the brand expanded, Feighery directed new restaurant openings in Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas. By 2006, he was vice president of western operations, based in Las Vegas. Business was booming.
Then the global financial crisis hit, and luxury spending shriveled. Corporate dining accounted for roughly 60 percent of Smith & Wollensky’s business before the crash, and the company hurt from slashed expense accounts. Rather than cut costs, however, Feighery dug in. He helped orchestrate cosmetic upgrades to restaurants and oversaw personnel changes, including the hiring of a national beverage director, chief financial officer, and new vice president of marketing.
The company also sought social business more aggressively. Today, catering and private dining represent 16 percent of revenue, doubled from three years ago. “The [economic crisis] made us control our restaurants better. It made us realize we could be better. We needed to give guests the best experience possible.”
photography by eric levin