Of all of this fall's openings, few have been as eagerly anticipated as the return of Gatlin's BBQ. When the restaurant's five year run on 19th Street came to a sudden end, the restaurant's fans had to find other sources for their smoked meat fix — although nothing, not even Jackson Street BBQ, owner Greg Gatlin's well-received joint venture with Reef owners Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd, can substitute for Gatlin's ribs and world-conquering dirty rice.
Thankfully, the wait has come to an end. After a preview service on Monday that attracted hundreds who waited an hour or more for food, Gatlin's will throw open the doors of its new location on Ella Boulevard Friday morning at 11 am.
"For me, I think everything went well. It was good to see old customers here and new customers," Gatlin tells CultureMap. "By no means was I expecting a perfect service, but, as far as putting out a good product, I was happy with what happened."
Whereas the old Gatlin's barely had room for a half dozen tables inside and a handful of picnic tables on a covered patio, the new restaurant seats almost 150 that are split between two dining rooms. With wood-paneled walls and Edison bulbs, the new restaurant sports a retro, lived-in look. All it needs to feel like a proper barbecue joint are the requisite neon beer signs — and maybe a framed jersey or two from Gatlin's days as a football standout at St. Thomas and Rice.
All that space extends to the kitchen, too, which features two separate lines. Gatlin thinks that will help speed up delivery of food, which was perhaps the original location's biggest problem.
"Everything we did is to try to be built for speed at lunchtime. At dinner, we can slow it down and let people have a glass of wine or a beer," Gatlin says. "You’re inside and not braving the elements between the heat and the cold on 19th. It was a beautiful thing, but you cut out a certain clientele not being able to sit down."
While Gatlin could ease into the new location by offering only lunch for a couple of weeks, he's chosen to launch dinner right away. "Full throttle on Friday. We’re going to get everybody around here baptized. Trial by fire," Gatlin says with a laugh.
Dinner options will include traditional barbecue, but Gatlin has developed other menu items that utilize smoked and grilled proteins. "We’ll have seafood aspects, poultry and pork that aren’t your standard trinities and so forth," he says. Later, he adds that the new dinner items "give people an option when they don’t want to cook. It’s grilling so it’s a little bit healthy but still has a lot of flavor to it. It’ll be kid friendly. We’ll have a kids menu."
The only thing that Gatlin's won't have when it opens is a liquor license, which is still being held up while the City of Houston considers a covenant variance. "We’re trying to see what the timing is in terms of when that will take place. Apparently, it takes a certain amount of time to do it," Gatlin says. "I think that needs to be more clear to the business community itself so we know what we’re up against from the beginning. We’ll try to run some of that to our city councilmen and the Restaurant Association to find out what can be done to speed the process."
While barbecue certainly tastes better with a cold beer or two, it certainly isn't required. For now, diners will make due with a full selection of soft drinks and iced tea.
The consensus of a few veteran barbecue enthusiasts who sampled Gatlin's product on Monday is that the food at the new restaurant tastes just as good as it did at the old. For diners who've been waiting seven months for Gatlin's to return, that's a very good thing.