A recent night on The Woodlands Waterway was replete with well-dressed professional twenty and thirtysomethings and a smattering of retirees, plus the occasional family with stroller(s) or a few children wrapped in towels fresh from the nearby splash pad. People sat outside on both sides of Waterway Avenue, with wine at Grimaldi’s, beer at Baker St. Pub & Grill and cocktails in the recessed patio of Hubbell & Hudson Bistro.
They headed past the valet into America’s, stood in line with the teens at Berripop, laughed over sushi behind the windows at Kita, took the stairs to rooftop wine bar Crush. Other pulled each other across Lake Robbins Drive toward the 17-screen movie theater.
All of it an impressive sight, really, since “these buildings only started going in about five or six years ago,” according to Steve Wilson.
“Before that, this whole (area) was dirt,” continues Wilson, who is the assistant manager at one of the newest Waterway restaurants, Luca & Leonardo. Except for the hotel bar inside the Woodlands Waterway Marriott (which opened in 2002), there wasn’t much of a Waterway nightlife at all until 2007.
That’s when the The Goose’s Acre opened. It’s an 1880s pub brought in from Midleton, County Cork, Ireland and re-built, and it’s the venue most often seen on brochures where sociable diners fill the Waterway-view patio as a lone water taxi floats by. On weekends, smoking and drinking younger patrons take over the downstairs to enjoy a DJ — and a wilder time than depicted in ads — late into the night.
“These buildings only started going in about five or six years ago,” Steve Wilson says. “Before that, this whole (area) was dirt.”
Hubbell & Hudson opened its principal upscale grocery containing the well-rounded and well-reviewed Hubbell & Hudson Bistro the very next year. “Sip and Shop” has caught on: Get yourself a glass of wine or beer and browse the gourmet pantry products or pick up some grass-fed meat and organic produce to cook later. Hubbell's delicious homemade gelato flavors taste even better with a buzz.
At America’s, the well-dressed crowd eats downstairs with its floor-to-ceiling windows, then lounges, dances and continues to drink upstairs. It’s a pleasant venue. Don’t go on prom night, though.
Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, with its coal-fired brick oven pizza, has two stories and an outside patio and still manages to fill up to “take a light-up pager, please” capacity. Grimaldi’s’ second story overlooks the colorful “dancing” fountains and splash pad. Clean-lined Vegas-style “wine lounge” Crush occupies the two stories above. It's always a good place for a chilled-out glass of wine with the girls or, later, dancing to a DJ on the open roof.
Kita means very fresh sushi, plus robata-grilled items and a laid-back bar. It’s a block away from Stir Crazy, basically an upscale Genghis Grill, but with unique desserts, a full bar and a full menu. If you’re unable to down your entire “Market Bar” dinner bowl, they’ll store leftovers in their ‘fridge upon request, so you’re not walking into your movie with them.
Upscale sports bar The Exchange is one of the latest in this string of new nightlife options. Owner and former world traveler Steve Jackson and wife Sunny decided to settle here, bringing to life their dream bar: a non-smoking, dark-leather-and-wood environment, low-volume Black Keys and Killers on the speakers, made comfortably complete with a private room and bottle service. There’s live music every Friday.
“People don’t want to travel 30 minutes just to go to one bar,” Exchange owner Steve Jackson says. "But the Waterway’s becoming a destination."
The bar has a stock ticker concept similar to that of Die Berliner Republik in Munich, Germany: Beer prices change every 20 minutes, based on supply and demand. When not playing shuffleboard or watching the game, patrons can follow beer ups and downs like stocks on separate screens above the bar. For faster service, there’s a call button on each table, an idea borrowed from eateries in Korea. Press the button, and a server comes to take your drink order.
The Exchange opened this June, and so did the luxuriously appointed Luca & Leonardo, a traditional Italian restaurant featuring 40 Italian wines at $25 per bottle, and 15 martini flavors. La Lupita — a sister restaurant featuring “puro Mex, sin Tex” (purely Mex, without Tex) plus food and festivals from every state in Mexico — will be opening next to it in September. It will feature more outdoor seating than the plethora that already exists on the Waterway, plus live music Thursday to Saturday, salsa made at the table to your specifications, and a “Tequila Museum” — 200 varieties of firewater.
The two restaurants’ dual chefs are Daniel Miranda and Cesar Hernandez of Mexico’s Iron Chef show (Prime Gourmet: El Reto).
“People don’t want to travel 30 minutes just to go to one bar,” Exchange owner Steve Jackson says. "But the Waterway’s becoming a destination. Once you have a place where you can find a nice dinner and multiple drinking spots, I think that’s what people crave.
"You want a nice date out? Go to the movies, go for a walk down on the Waterway, come in here for a few cocktails, go next door for a few … whatever you want to do. Park once. It’s all right here.”
Another night scene that’s exploded over the past five years, also with a movie theater, and within walking distance of the Waterway, is Market Street. This square patch of grass is anchored by Texas’ only Tommy Bahamas (retail plus restaurant) and Chef Kent Rathbun’s gourmet home cooking concept Jasper’s. Then there’s Stadia Sports Grill, Schilleci’s New Orleans Kitchen for Cajun and Creole, Uni Sushi, Pizza by Marco (they deliver!), and Houston-area familiars including The Grotto, Chipotle, Potbelly, La Madeleine, Café Express, Salata, and fave fish taco spot Berryhill.
Coming soon: The Counter, a build-your-own burger bar. The AVIA Hotel (soon to be another Hyatt) has a fabulous poolside terrace bar perfect for people watching, but the center of this entire scene would have to be the enclosed patio seating at restaurant neighbors 1252 (Spanish tapas and one of the most authentic Tortilla de Patatas in the Houston area) and Crú - A Wine Bar.
These spots are right in front of the valet, and some differing combination of Porsches, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Audi R8s and the new Lexus LFA pulls up every Saturday to be parked lined up next to the sidewalk. It’s fun to watch.
Parking tips: Find free parking at the Tinseltown parking lot next to the theater (Lake Robbins, east of Six Pines Road), and $3 parking at the northeast corner of Timberloch Place and Waterway Avenue. Or, if you plan to visit Hubbell & Hudson, park in its Fountain Street garage. With your validated ticket (at store checkout), parking is free there for up to four hours.
There are also a number of lots surrounding Market Street, which is between Six Pines, Lake Robbins Drive, Grogan’s Mill and Woodlands Parkway.