When Paul Miller purchased Haven's former home to launch Paul's Kitchen, the owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality thought he'd found a perfect location for the upscale farm-to-table concept. After just over a year in business, Miller has come to the conclusion that it wasn't meant to be.
"While I certainly don’t consider this a failure, I’ve learned a lot," Miller tells CultureMap. "This is like a college education for the last year-and-a-half I’ve been over here."
Asked to be specific about what he's learned, Miller cites some of the challenges Paul's Kitchen faced from its location, such as being set back away from both Kirby and the Southwest Freeway and the valet only lot. Even the building's sheer size proved to be a challenge; diners could feel uncomfortable seeing only 10 occupied tables.
"Every night, if you have 12 tables in this restaurant, it’s a ghost town. There’s some other restaurants, if you have 12 tables, it’s packed and bustling," Miller notes. "That’s what Paul’s Kitchen is, and that’s where I think the biggest miss might have been. It’s such a big space with such a small menu."
Although executive chef Paul Lewis's rigorous commitment to cooking with seasonal ingredients earned praise, the practice could alienate diners, who would find a favorite dish had suddenly disappeared from the menu. Miller takes the opposite approach to menu construction at his three locations of neighborhood restaurant The Union Kitchen, where only the bottom 15-percent of dishes are shuffled off on a quarterly basis.
"This was more of a chef-driven restaurant. We didn’t put salt and pepper on the table. It was just a different mindset that I would not do again," Miller says. "100-percent a restaurant is about the guests, and you have to make sure you bend over backwards to take care of them. There are very few restaurants in town that have that chef where people say, ‘whatever the chef wants. I’ll just take it.’"
While the decision to close Paul's is painful, almost all of the space's disadvantages as a restaurant will be benefits for a banquet facility. Being set back from the street means people can use the patio without hearing all the noise from the traffic or smelling car exhaust. A valet-only lot is an asset when people are dressed up.
The room's size means Merrill House will be able to accommodate as many as 300 people for a seated dinner; it even has a separate room in the back so that the guests of honor at a quinceanera, bar mitzvah, or wedding can have a little privacy before greeting their guests.
Merrill House, which Miller named after his father and grandfather, will also offer a comprehensive package that Miller thinks will allow him to compete with Upper Kirby-area hotels and other banquet spaces. For $12,000, up to 120 people can eat a three-course meal with three glasses of wine (white, red, and champagne).
From there, a host could customize the setting by adding flowers or upgrading the linens. Miller says he's done enough research to know that it will be a competitive price in a world where $10,000 might only guarantee someone a room with tables and chairs.
Lewis has begun to develop menus for the facility that leverage his wide range of experiences at places like the Four Seasons hotel chain and Osteria Mazzantini. Union Kitchen culinary director Henry Hopkes is helping to ensure that restaurant's cuisine is also available. Miller adds that customers will also be able to get Jax Grill-style burgers or even barbecue.
Overall, Miller says he's optimistic about Gr8 Plate's future. Work has begun on the Garden Oaks location of The Union Kitchen, and Miller says he's actively involved in negotiations to expand family-friendly Jax Grill.
"We serve as many as 2,500 people in a day," Miller says about Jax. "The line’s out the door and around the corner. In my opinion, $4.85 for a fresh, never been frozen burger cooked on a live-fire mesquite grill is the best deal in town."