“Oh, this is so New York,” exclaims a man in business attire to his female companion as he ushers her into the dining room of Benjamin Steakhouse, located east of Times Square in Manhattan. The dining room, often boisterous after work, is found at the end of a narrow hallway covered with framed photos of celebrities, politicians and media stars who have dined at the restaurant, from Kim Kardashian to the Clintons.
Some of the city’s most iconic, “so New York” restaurants, like Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque, Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia and countless neighborhood establishments, are immigrant-owned. Benjamin Steakhouse falls into this category, launched by two Albanian brother-in-laws in 2006—both named Benjamin—originally from Plav, a small town in Montenegro.
“I came here first,” says Benjamin Sinanaj, the elder of the two, now in his late 40s. He arrived in New York City in 1986. “I was studying physics,” recalls Sinanaj donning a crisp suit and tie and remembers coming to the realization there would be a bleak future after graduation. “The country was not in stable condition,” explains Sinanaj.
The younger Benjamin, Benjamin Prelvukaj, whose sister is married to Sinanaj, immigrated as a teen in the late 90s. “When the war started in Kosovo,” says Prelvukaj, now in his mid-30s, “things were getting pretty bad.”
Benjamin Steakhouse has a classic feel; its dining room features subdued lighting, bowtied waiters carrying plates of food or elongated pepper grinders, white tablecloths and warm wood surfaces. Sinanaj and Prelvukaj have a hands-on management style, one if not both can be found working the room, from greeting guests to checking coats if need be.