An ode to a bygone era and a former Grand Forks businessman, Harry's Steakhouse opens with 'American classic' feel

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Oct. 23—Walk into Harry's Steakhouse and you may think you've entered a ritzy, venerable steakhouse in 1940s Chicago or New York.

In the enclosed entry, a black-and-white photo of Greta Garbo and piped-in music of Judy Garland (singing "I'm Just Wild About Harry") are the first hints of the ambience that awaits.

Inside, a highly-polished walnut bar invites guests to sit and relax in custom-made red-leather swivel stools.

In the dining rooms, the mood is set with cozy booths, sparkling crystal, white linen tablecloths, black linen napkins and exposed brick on interior walls, which imbue the place with a sense of age-old, time-honored tradition.

"People have said they don't feel like they're in Grand Forks anymore," said Hal Gershman, owner of the restaurant named for his father. "The ambience is classic 1940s."

"Someone said it feels like a supper club, like going back in time," said Matt Walkowiak, general manager.

That's exactly what Gershman, a longtime Grand Forks businessman and former city councilman, intended when he first envisioned the steakhouse that occupies the location where his father, Harold Gershman, opened a restaurant in the early '40s. The restaurant operated for a few years when Harold closed it and opened his first liquor store, Central Package Store, in the same spot in 1944. The original two-story structure, built at the turn of the 1900s, was demolished in 1970, as part of urban renewal, and the Internal Revenue Service constructed and occupied the current building on DeMers and Fifth Street. Later, it was the site of a law firm.

"That was the real hook for me — to come back to where dad started," Gershman said, adding that he never considered another location for the restaurant.

"It's completing the circle here. That was one of my motivations," he said. "I like to complete circles."

Gershman began kicking around the idea for Harry's Steakhouse about eight years ago, after the employee stock-ownership plan for his expansive business, Happy Harry's Bottle Shops, became "solid," he said. "It gave me time to handle this."

In an effort to create the dining space they dreamed of, Gershman and Walkowiak traveled to New York in 2019 to dine at five of the city's best steakhouses. They took extensive notes on what they liked and didn't like about each, Gershman said.

First impressions

Visitors to Harry's Steakhouse will notice, as they approach the bar, a large black-and-white photo of actor James Cagney, holding a silver tray full of the necessities for making drinks. Cagney is winking, with a mischievous grin. It's one of Gershman's favorite images, he said.

Photos of other former Hollywood stars adorn the walls, further enhancing the 1940s vibe.

Above the bar, TV screens run silent movies and scenes of great dancers of a bygone era, such as Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. On a recent midweek afternoon, the screens featured nostalgic film clips of Bob Hope tap-dancing gracefully with Cagney, transporting the viewer to a simpler, perhaps sweeter, time.

The screens were installed "so people sitting here at the bar have something to watch," said Gershman. The large red-leather swivel stools that line the bar are easy to get in and out of, and "are so comfortable, you're in no hurry to leave," Gershman said.

The bar boasts "a phenomenal bourbon section and tequila section," he said, as well as spirit-free drinks made from tea, which gives the drinks their base flavor.

The full menu is available at the bar, for those who prefer the more casual feel. The bar is "open seating," Walkowiak said, but reservations are suggested for the dining rooms and may be made by calling (701) 757-2333. The steakhouse, which seats about 100 guests and has 28 employees, is open from 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

'Everything is new'

Even though the ambience exudes the past, "everything is new," except for the exterior brick, which dates to the 1970s, Gershman said.

The interior brick lining the dining room appears a century old, but is newly installed by B&M Masonry of Grand Forks.

With guidance from JLG Architects and a Santa Barbara, Calif., architectural firm, the space was gutted and the roof raised seven feet, said Gershman, who bought the building in 2018. The three-year renovation included installing state-of-the-art HVAC, lighting, plumbing, kitchen and bar equipment.

Innes Construction was the general contractor. Almost all of the other contractors and subcontractors are area firms, including Woodside Industries, Cavalier, N.D., and B&M Masonry and Caya Painting, Grand Forks. Custom-made seating was provided by a Minneapolis company.

"We had high standards," Gershman said. But instead of shying away from the work, "they were excited about it."

Bathrooms are beautifully appointed with touchless faucets that run only warm water. Each stall features a purse hook — "so you never have to set your purse on the floor," he said — and a coat hook.

The decor, influenced by the Art Deco style, is steeped in tones of deep red, black, gray and white. A long, caramel-colored leather banquette stretching along the side of an interior room is topped with a row of mahogany spindles that separates the dining and bar spaces.

The dining room also boasts a large fireplace over which hangs a cream-colored mirror, tinged with gold, that was installed in 1931 in the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Gershman said.

Hanging from brass poles atop the booths, foot-long curtaining enhances privacy and reduces ambient noise, allowing diners to converse normally. Acoustic tiles affixed to the underside of tables and in the ceiling absorb noise. Walls are insulated to silence street noise.

In each booth, stuffed pillows add to patrons' seating comfort.

A couple of booths, fitted with full curtaining, have been dubbed "wise guys" booths, in a nod to big-city gangsters who required utmost privacy to conduct their business.

Near the front entrance, a private dining room, which seats eight at a square table, also has a pair of floor-to-ceiling drapes that can be closed to provide secluded dining for a family or social gathering.

It's clear that close attention has been paid to all aspects of the environment, including — and maybe especially — the lighting. Overhead lighting can be dimmed, while small lamps mounted in the booths create a sense of intimacy.

"Lighting is very important," Gershman said, pointing out the rooms' soft light, which "has a little more of a rose tint."

As two of the establishment's first "customers," Gershman and his wife, Kathy, noticed the bright lights in the kitchen would be off-putting to dinner guests. "That was unacceptable," he said. Working with designers, they had a panel with colored and frosted panes installed to minimize the light's intensity.

The attention to detail extends to the water glasses. Tables are set with one style meant for still water, but if the customer orders sparkling water, that glass is removed and replaced with a different one — so the server doesn't need to interrupt patrons' conversation to ask which type of water he or she is drinking when refilling the glass, Gershman said.

Every detail was reviewed and approved, Gershman said. "Nothing was haphazard."

Even the coffee cups are kept toasty warm in special equipment in the kitchen.

"I hate a cold cup," he said.

The waiters are trained to be "very attentive, but not intrusive," he said. This was confirmed when, during a recent dinner, a Herald reporter received expert advice about menu selections and excellent service from Patrick Bailey, a Williston, N.D., native and UND graduate who was recruited from a fine dining establishment in New York to join the steakhouse staff here.

'A little more casual'

"Cozy" and "comfortable" seem to be frequently used by Gershman and Walkowiak to describe a setting they revere as an "American classic."

"People love a steakhouse," Walkowiak said. "They love the ambience that is a little more casual. It's about creating good feelings and comfort."

"It never gets old," he said. "Seeing people's reactions when they come in, that's the best part."

To work as general manager at Harry's "has been a dream," Walkowiak said. "I've always envied the classic steakhouse — it's the capstone of dining. It's fun — it really is."

The kitchen, with a staff of about 10, is under the direction of Head Chef Lane Leech, a former employee of Walkowiak's at Ground Round. She and her staff received valuable advice and tips from Kim Holmes, longtime chef and owner of the former Sanders 1907, Gershman said.

Leech, a native of Karlstad, Minn., moved to Grand Forks at age 4 and graduated from Red River High School in 2000.

The parent of four boys, ranging in age from 8 to 15, Leech has years of experience in the restaurant business here and in Colorado, where she earned a culinary degree from Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs. Her experience spans fine dining venues as well as more casual establishments, such as the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Colorado Springs, where she worked for years as confectionery chef, she said.

Being named head chef at Harry's Steakhouse "is really rewarding, after lots of years of hard work in kitchens," Leech said. "It's nice to have the opportunity to do (this work) here in Grand Forks." Bringing her experiences to this position, "I think, makes me a better boss," she said.

"It's fun, and a great opportunity to do this with Matt, whom I've known for a long time, and Hal, who is an awesome guy."

Gershman wants the restaurant to be known for steaks, he said. "High quality, aged beef — aged at least 21 days." He and Walkowiak developed the menu, but staff also could suggest items.

"Nothing goes on the menu until it's been tried," Gershman said. The cheesecake, he noted, is from New York.

Complicated project

Planning for and opening Harry's "is the most complicated thing I've done," he said. "There are an incredible number of moving parts and decisions every day. I couldn't do it without Matt (Walkowiak)."

Gershman also speaks highly of other pillars of the steakhouse, including Chef Leech; Michelle Kennedy, head of house; and Paul Conlon, bar manager. Along with the team members they've assembled, "they're all very talented and creative," Gershman said. "I'm really proud of them."

During a recent tour of downtown Grand Forks, Gov. Doug Burgum stopped to see Harry's. While there, he said the restaurant likely will be a tool local employers use for recruiting potential new hires.

"Every company in town that's trying to recruit a doctor, a professor, an engineer, whoever they're trying to get to come to North Dakota, will bring them here for dinner and try to close the deal," Burgum said.

Gershman also has fielded favorable comments from local residents.

"What people say is, this is a gift to the city," Gershman said. "I never thought of it that way, but that is a nice thing to say."

So what would Harry Gershman, Hal's father, who died in 1977, think of this restaurant?

"He'd really really love it," Gershman said. "And he'd Iove that it's named for him."

The reward for Hal Gershman may just be seeing patrons enjoying Grand Forks' newest downtown restaurant.

"It's so good to see people having a good time," he said.

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