It’s not often that you can say a restaurant was truly original, but in the case of Henry at the Life Hotel, it’s an apt description. Chef J.J. Johnson’s kitchen specialized in Pan-African cuisine, mixing staple dishes of the African diaspora and beyond — jollof, piri piri sauce, West African peanut sauce — into the fine-dining tradition.
The restaurant’s mission, as Johnson told me when it opened, was to expose the world to the power and the potential of African-inspired cooking in an environment that was unapologetically black, where hip-hop would blare, where the staff was comprised almost entirely of people of color, and where the dining room featured one of the most diverse crowds south of 125th Street.
During its 11-month run, Johnson had no problem drawing critical acclaim around his restaurant’s cuisine. He earned a glowing one star from the New York Times, and landed on both critic Pete Wells’s and GQ critic Brett Martin’s lists of the best new restaurants of 2018. What’s more, Johnson appeared just this week in an ambitious Times profile of black chefs who are changing the American food scene. (Johnson’s first cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, won a James Beard Award in May.)
And then, suddenly, the restaurant closed. If Johnson knew the end was nigh, his mile-wide smile didn’t betray it, but the finish appears to have arrived swiftly. The restaurant’s website disappeared, as did its social-media accounts. No one involved — Johnson, the management company Craveable Hospitality Group, or the hotel — offered a reason why. (And a banner celebrating Johnson’s Beard Award still pops up when you visit Craveable’s website.)
When restaurants close — especially restaurants that display all the trappings of success — owners and chefs often scramble to publicly thank their supporters, offer their condolences to the employees who will lose their jobs, and (almost inevitably) discuss the difficulty of running a small business in New York. With Henry, none of that happened and the seeming silence feels unsettling, almost as if people want us to forget that the restaurant even existed in the first place.
A veritable blockade has been thrown up by everyone involved. Craveable Hospitality issued a boilerplate statement that the company has “concluded their collaboration at Life Hotel in New York City,” as if Henry were little more than a pop-up. Johnson offered a firm “no comment” about the closing. Pam Wiznitzer, who opened the attached bar, Gibson + Luce, and ran Henry’s bar program, quietly left back in January. Employees at the hotel’s reception desk have also apparently been instructed to say nothing and to forward all inquiries to Craveable.
The situation immediately calls to mind the abrupt closing of Washington D.C. chef Kwame Onwuachi’s restaurant, The Shaw Bijou. As Onwuachi details in his 2019 book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, The Shaw Bijou represented Onwuachi’s unique experience — growing up in New York City, cutting his teeth at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, and connecting with his heritage as a black man — and then finally getting a chance to run his own solo restaurant. But the two wealthy businessmen who backed the project later proved to be ill-equipped to deal with the stressors of owning a restaurant and pulled the sheepskin rug out from under him. They closed the restaurant suddenly and without warning, robbing the 20-something chef of his opportunity to bid goodbye on his own terms. It’s curious that Johnson, too, who is normally very outspoken, isn’t talking about leaving Henry on his own terms.
In an interview for an article from last year about the lack of black voices in restaurant writing, Johnson described struggling to get mainstream critics to visit The Cecil until the late food critic Josh Ozersky named the restaurant the best of the best in 2014. So he traveled downtown, first doing a 15-week run at the Chef’s Club and then going into business with Craveable Hospitality on Henry. Both projects took him far from the safe space of Harlem, where he didn’t have to explain himself or what he was trying to do. It’s perhaps why he decided to open his new counter-service restaurant FieldTrip, his first project that he owns outright and located in Harlem, no less. It doesn’t occupy the same neighborhood as The Nomad or Eleven Madison Park like Henry, but it’s home.
The strip of Malcolm X Boulevard where Johnson will now spend most of his days running FieldTrip is wide and sunny, loud and a bit rough and tumble, but open. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of the narrow, hushed stretch of 31st Street where Henry sat. Johnson is the type to always have a bigger, better plan up his sleeve, but New York City is nevertheless a bit poorer for having lost Henry, and the experience that it offered.