Heart of New Mexico: Ben Michael’s restaurant in Albuquerque
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Ben Michael’s is an unusual restaurant that definitely catches people’s eyes driving by, but have you ever wondered the story behind it?
This unusual restaurant comes alive every Tuesday night, during Jazz night.
“Ben Michael’s Restaurant is a different kind of restaurant.”
Ben Michael does it all.
“People will show up, I’m the waiter and then after I finish waiting then I go cook their food,” said Michael. “Bring out your food and after that, I try to play them some music.”
But, this wasn’t always the plan, before the music, dancing, and food – there was another plan.
“When I went to college I actually wanted to be an architect,” Michael said. “Professor came up to me and says ‘you’re not smart enough to be an architect,’ and I kinda, blew – busted my bubble, dude. I was like, really dude?”
He became a pharmacist, but he always had a passion for people.
“Back in the day he (Michael’s father) would say let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food, and so I took that aspect to heart,” said Michael.
His dad knew a lot about feeding a neighborhood.
“My father had a grocery store, it was right across the street from the south Broadway Cultural Center. It was called Ben’s Food Market,” said Michael.
The building is still there. It opened as a grocery store in the Barelas neighborhood in 1956.
“So, I got to grow up in that business – of the grocery business, of meeting people, and getting to know your neighbors. Your neighbors would come in and they’d all come and they’d share,” Michael said. “Sometimes the neighbors would come in and bring my dad a six-pack of beer, and they’d share a beer and ‘how you doing?’”
Bringing a community together runs in the family. However, Jazz night was right before coronavirus changed the world.
“I realize that – how fragile we all are,” said Michael.
Jazz nights stopped and Ben Michael’s sat empty for months.
“I learned a sense of appreciation and humility on how important that really is for all of us. We as a human race need each other. We all need a touch, we need love, we need kindness, we need to interact with each other.”
But, a change of plans would not change his mission.
“And like, me and my dad always told me growing up – he would kinda let me do what I want to do, but he always said, ‘Ben Michael don’t embarrass your family, do right by your family.’”
This restaurant was built brick-by-brick – no architecture degree needed.
“My dad, actually, when I first opened up my dad was my first dishwasher, and then, my mom was my waitress,” said Michael. “It’s a building that I built about 29 years ago. Made 8,000 adobe bricks, made all the doors, carved all the beams went to the mountains cut all the Aspens down.”
Every detail was crafted by the tools he got from his family.
“This is my grandfather’s draw blade. A draw blade is what you use to peel bark off a tree, so when you want to put vigas up,” Michael said. “So I’m real proud of it because this is the only tool I got from him.”
Building a business, and a community, the way his father did.
“I hope my dad really was proud of me. I hope he loved me, and my mom would say ‘yeah he did,’ and it was just in a soft-spoken way of what he did.”
Ben Michael’s dad died 10 years ago.
“My father was a good funny man you know, he was really loved.”
But, he’s not gone, on the wall Michael built hangs a picture showing his community, his father, and the family before him.
“I look at the wall, and I go, man ‘I hope I make you guys proud, and I hope you’re enjoying the music tonight, you know from heaven.’”
Now, his community has returned to help him keep the doors open. Tuesday night’s Jazz nights look like they always did.
“It’s really neat because I’ve continued – by the grace of God – to continue to have a business. And to offer, probably the same things they wanted to offer, to people, and that they probably did offer to people and to continue that same sense of small business but big heart,” said Michael.
Showing a change of plans doesn’t always mean a change of course.