Of all the various types of restaurants, fine dining, fast casual, fast food, etc, perhaps the most enduring is the neighborhood restaurant. Family friendly, reasonably priced, open for lunch and dinner: Neighborhood restaurants are such an important part of the dining world that CultureMap dedicated an entire Tastemakers category to saluting them
Of course, the best neighborhood restaurants are so quietly solid that they don't tend to attract much attention.
Such is the case with Hungry's Cafe. For 30 years, this Rice Village staple has satisfied countless diners with its healthy, Mediterranean-inspired fare. The restaurant is in the process of constructing a new, two-story building next door to its current location that's just far enough off the radar to have been inadvertently omitted from the recent round-up of new and upcoming openings.
"This space used to be a Dairy Queen. You can only push a Dairy Queen so far."
Payam Sharifi, son of Hungry's founder Fred, is now sharing some details on the restaurant's plans. Conceived by Collaborative Projects's Jim Herd (Underbelly, Bernie's Burger Bus) with implementation and interiors by Houston architect Palmer Schooley (Kata Robata, Benjy's on Washington), the new space's design matches the architecture of neighboring Rice University and Christ the King Lutheran Church. Materials from the former building have been reclaimed, including wood floors, bricks and stone.
When it opens in the spring of 2015 with nearly 9,300 square feet of indoor seating and an expansive patio, it will provide plenty of room for the families and neighborhood residents who routinely fill Hungry's dining room.
"What we’re hoping to achieve is to have a space that’s integrated with the neighborhood," Sharifi tells CultureMap. "This space used to be a Dairy Queen. You can only push a Dairy Queen so far."
The new patio will be one of the standout features of the new building. The design features a fountain and low walls that should fit in well with pedestrian-friendly Rice Village.
"The area will feel as porous as possible, meaning the barriers are quite low," Sharifi says. "People who stroll by can literally step over almost."
The second floor will house the Upstairs Bar & Lounge, which mimics Hungry's Memorial location's Next Door Bar & Lounge, as well as provide private dining options. They're calling it the treehouse, because, as Sharifi explains, diners "will be perched right at the level of these oak trees." As for the food, "We’re going to introduce a completely new menu for the upstairs lounge that will be mezze, comfy finger food, anything that doesn’t require a knife and fork."
Upstairs will give Hungry's a more upscale space to attract young professionals (or empty nesters), while keeping downstairs decidedly family friendly.
Two things that won't change are Hungry's signature generous portions and reasonable prices. "If you look at our menu, you can eat pretty well here. All different tastes of people, somebody wants a pasta, somebody wants a salad: all great ingredients for relatively cheap . . . . (Customers) often ask if the menu will change or prices will increase. Answers to both are no," Sharifi says.
Fred Sharifi partnered with his nephews Ashkan and Arash Nowamooz to make Hungry's what it is today. Now, Payam and his cousin Alex Nowamooz are making their mark on the family business with the new expansion, but both men realize that any changes need to be gradual.
"For us, it’s an evolution not a revolution," Sharifi notes. "It’s like a huge steamship: 30, 40 years. You don’t change the direction of a steamship (quickly) . . . . There’s no reason to change it drastically."
With a plan that improves upon the aspects that have made Hungry's successful while moving forward to attract even more customers, Sharifi and Nowamooz are positioning the restaurant for 30 more years of success.