HTX Good Eats 2013
Popular Restaurant Moving

Houston restaurant buzz: A popular Memorial spot is moving, expanding and getting into whiskey

Popular Houston restaurant's moving, expanding, getting into whiskey

Jonathan's The Rub restaurant dining room with lunch crowd
Jonathan's will trade its famously cramped quarters for a bigger space that's set to open next summer.  Jonathan's The Rub/Facebook
Eric Sandler and Jonathan of Jonathan's The Rub
Levine and his family run the business, which has grown from a catering operation.  Courtesy photo
Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013
A Jonathan's employee works at Lone Star Lobster company to prepare the meat for both lobster tacos... Photo by Eric Sandler
Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013
...and lobster sliders.  Photo by Eric Sandler
2 Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013
Crab cakes reflect the broad approach of Jonathan's menu.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Jonathan's The Rub restaurant dining room with lunch crowd
Eric Sandler and Jonathan of Jonathan's The Rub
Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013
Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013
2 Jonathan's The Rub restaurant Houston October 2013

Jonathan's the Rub is a classic Houston success story. From humble beginnings as a catering operation 10 years ago, chef/owner Jonathan Levine saw the business as a break from the hectic life of owning a restaurant.

But his customers wanted to eat his food all the time. Levine tells CultureMap that he "got the bug" to get back into the restaurant business and added 28 seats to his strip center location. Over six years, he's expanded to 80-plus, but there are still waits at both lunch and dinner.

Levine sums up the problem succinctly. "We've outgrown this place," he says. "I'm uncomfortable with people waiting. We're too small for reservations."

 Of all the changes, Levine seems the most excited about adding whiskey to his offerings. 

To solve the problem, Levine will move Jonathan's to a new building that's a few blocks away. Tentatively set for an August 1, 2014 opening, the ambitious step will see the restaurant grow to 150 interior seats with a 50-seat patio and 20-seat bar. Yes, one of Houston's best BYOB restaurants will add a full bar, with a whiskey selection developed by Reserve 101 co-owner Mike Raymond. 

Levine says the expanded space will bring a number of benefits to Jonathan's customers. First, the restaurant will be able to make tortillas and other items in-house that it currently lacks the room to prepare. Second, "flexible walls" will allow the restaurant to seat up to 80 people for private events. The open kitchen will showcase a new, wood-fired grill that allows Johnathan's to expand upon its steak offerings and add new seafood options.

Levine says his goal is "to keep the feeling the same but also cater to corporate clients" from the Energy Corridor and other nearby areas. 

Of all the changes, Levine seems the most excited about adding whiskey to his offerings. Since the chef still works the saute station during dinner, he and Raymond have been meeting at midnight for tastings. "I want to be associated with anything he's doing," Levine says of his whiskey mentor. Although Levine's never been a big drinker, he says learning about whiskey "has been fun. A couple of drops of water makes the flavors explode." 

One thing that won't change: Jonathan's will remain a true family affair, with Levine's son Sam working in the kitchen and daughter Jessica running the dining room. Even the restaurant's name comes from Levine's memories of his mother reciting Shakespeare at family events. Specifically, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet that includes the lines "To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub, / For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil." 

"To me, that was the most fascinating line, provoking an incredible amount of thought," Levine recalls. "Question of life and death. What happens after we die . . . all at 10 years old. It scared me."

Thus, "The Rub" became both part of his personal worldview and the name for a signature spice blend that would define his cuisine. He spent 85 days developing a signature rub that balanced salty, sweet, spicy and savory but couldn't get the mix quite right.

Finally, redemption came in the form of a Penzey's spice catalog. When the chef saw smoked Hungarian paprika, he thought "that's gotta be it." 

Diners who may not have tried Jonathan's may recall the incident in 2010 when Levine kicked out Chronicle critic Alison Cook after she sent back an overcooked steak. Chef and critic have since buried the hatchet and enjoyed a lengthy conversation when they found themselves attending the same guest-chef dinner at Underbelly.

"We came to a great understanding," Levine says. "She knows we're passionate. This is an owner/chef-driven place. It's real deal food."