Ian Rosenberg is at it again.
The urban designer/developer with a conscience who is responsible for meticulously restoring historic buildings into two of Midtown's hippest bars — 13 Celsius and Mongoose versus Cobra — is thinking really big this time, with plans to develop a former 32,000-square-foot garage and print shop into a bakery, restaurant and bar that will serve the rapidly growing neighborhood nearly around the clock.
"We're trying to create a neighborhood. Houston is changing and evolving. There's tremendous opportunity."
Rosenberg is joining forces with three others — Heath Wendell, president and founder of Slow Dough Bread Co., restaurateur/chocolatier Richard Kaplan and wine expert Mike Sammons (Rosenberg's partner at 13 Celsius) — on the project, which they are labeling Weights + Measures.
The new food and drink space on Caroline Avenue in Midtown will take over the front half of the building, while the back half is already occupied by The Metropolitan Dance Company (METdance), which on a recent day was buzzing with students taking dance classes in four big rehearsal spaces. Upstairs the hip design firm, Acumen, has its offices, with space for additional tenants.
"We're trying to create a neighborhood," Rosenberg says. "Houston is changing and evolving. There's tremendous opportunity."
When Weights + Measures opens, hopefully by mid-September, the partners in the new project see the combined space as greater than the sum of its various parts, attracting customers throughout the day into the night. Wendell's first Slow Dough Bread Co. retail store will anchor a space inside the entrance of METdance, to attract parents dropping their kids off at dance class or business types stopping for coffee and pastries in the morning or throughout the day.
"Adding the baking component softens (the entire project)," Wendell says. "It helps balance the whole thing to be a true neighborhood."
Other features include a glassed-in room where customers can see dough being made for fresh pasta and pastries, a donut fryer, and an open kitchen with large pantry.
Nearby, a small cafe area can serve as a gathering spot for meetings during the day and, by late afternoon can be transformed into a place for a quick sip of wine. Kaplan's mouth-watering Brown Paper Chocolates will also be sold there.
The cafe area will flow into a much larger restaurant seating 150, with a corner patio, and bar at the front of the building that faces Caroline street. Rosenberg carved out floor-to-ceiling windows at the front so those who walk or drive by can see inside.
"This corner felt like it needed a restaurant," he explains.
The interior will be a mix of soft colors and homey styles — shag carpet on some walls, '50s ceramic tile, fabric sofas and chairs — to contrast with the concrete beams and industrial feel of the building. Other features include a glassed-in room where customers can see dough being made for fresh pasta and pastries, a donut fryer, and an open kitchen with large pantry to allow almost everything to be in full view.
"We want you to be comfortable here and come often," Rosenberg says.
Kaplan, who will oversee the restaurant, plans to offer Roman style pizza and other items by weight and measure so customers can get the exact size they want. Sammons plans a drink menu with a nod toward the '70s, with new versions of such classics as the Harvey Wallbanger, Grasshopper and pina colada. "All of these drinks got a super bad rap, we want to make something good out of them," he says.
The four principals had been looking for a project to do together for a while. Wendell got to know Rosenberg and Sammons because he and his then-fiancee would stop by 13 Celsius after delivering bread to Houston restaurants. Rosenberg originally met Kaplan through restaurateur/chef Monica Pope and met Sammons at Dolce Vita. "It's a classic example of how everybody (in the food business) knows each other," Sammons says.
But won't four such strong-willed people have trouble getting along with such a big project?
"We tested it and went to Italy together," Sammons said, recalling an overseas trip that he, Wendell and Kaplan took in February to scout out ideas for Weights + Measures. (Rosenberg stayed in Houston where he was planning his wedding.)
"And we survived," Kaplan says with a laugh.
As anyone who has been on trip together knows, if you can travel together and remain friends, anything is possible.