Big Changes at Underbelly

The baller boards are back! Chris Shepherd's steakhouse to take over Underbelly

Baller boards are back! Shepherd converts Underbelly into a steakhouse

Kevin Floyd Chris Shepherd Southern Smoke
Chris Shepherd and Kevin Floyd are expanding their business. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
One Fifth Chris Shepherd steaks and sides
Many of the dishes from One Fifth Steak will have a new home at Georgia James. Photo by Julie Soefer
Underbelly Hospitality logo Chris Shepherd Kevin Floyd
Underbelly Hospitality will oversee Georgia James, One Fifth, Hay Merchant, and UB Preserv.   Courtesy image
Kevin Floyd Chris Shepherd Southern Smoke
One Fifth Chris Shepherd steaks and sides
Underbelly Hospitality logo Chris Shepherd Kevin Floyd

Chris Shepherd and Kevin Floyd have major changes in store for their restaurants Underbelly and One Fifth, as well a new location that will give the duo a third outpost on lower Westheimer.

The business partners announced Sunday night that Underbelly — the restaurant where Shepherd earned a James Beard Award for the dishes created with  combination of rigorously sourced local ingredients, and inspiration taken from Houston's immigrant communities — will close in March 2018. It will transform into a new steakhouse called Georgia James (after Shepherd's parents) that takes many of its dishes and inspiration from One Fifth Steak.

Rather than shutter Underbelly entirely, it will evolve into a new restaurant called UB Preserv, one that will occupy the space that formerly housed Poscol and the recently shuttered Jimmy Chew Asian Kitchen. (Details below.) As for One Fifth, Shepherd has decided that restaurant's third incarnation will take its inspiration from the Mediterranean, instead of serving seafood.

These changes will begin happening relatively quickly. Underbelly will close in late March to allow for construction to begin on Georgia James, which will open in the fall. Construction has already begun on UB Preserv, with an opening scheduled for April. One Fifth Romance Languages will close on July 31, 2018 — as scheduled — and reopen September 1, 2018. Essentially, Shepherd and Floyd will open three new restaurants in the span of approximately six months. 

That One Fifth Steak would be revived in a dedicated space should come as no surprise. In an interview with CultureMap in March, Floyd indicated that One Fifth Steak had been successful enough financially to justify finding a permanent home for it.

"If we find the right type of real estate to do a steakhouse, I think the numbers we’ve seen so far indicate that’s a good business model," Floyd said then. "I’m not going to go out and horseshoe a steakhouse into a building or a location that doesn’t need a steakhouse."

The thought that Underbelly's current home at 1100 Westheimer would be an appropriate venue for a steakhouse makes a certain amount of sense. Earlier this year, Shepherd shed some of Underbelly's self-imposed limitations about local sourcing and whole animal butchery to move in a more seafood-oriented direction. He now admits to the Chronicle that the changes "didn't translate."   

Georgia James will bring back much of what made One Fifth Steak so successful: steaks cooked on cast iron, extravagant cold seafood towers, and, of course, the signature baller boards. Shepherd and Floyd will work with local design firm Collaborative Projects to renovate the space into "a sleek, modern restaurant with a lot of glass and steel," according to a press release. Hay Merchant will stay open for much of the construction and will begin serving lunch in April, 2018.

As for UB Preserv, the restaurant that Shepherd has always described as "consistently inconsistently" will gain more than stability in this evolution. Relocating the restaurant will bring lots of changes to the concept, including the end of both the restrictions on the ingredients the restaurant will utilize and a menu that changes daily. In addition, UBP (as I'm hoping people will start calling it) will attempt to become more of a neighborhood restaurant by ditching lunch service and not accepting reservations.

“This isn’t Underbelly 2.0,” said Shepherd in a statement. “This restaurant is my interpretation of how Houston is evolving. It’s becoming more global, with flavors and spices and products from around the world. Underbelly was founded on a very strict philosophy of what we could and could not serve. No more. Houston doesn’t limit itself, and neither do I.”

The decision to change One Fifth's third concept from seafood to Mediterranean cuisine has roots both in the way that diners responded to Underbelly's seafood menu, and the recent closures of restaurants like Peska, SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, and Holley's. On a more positive side, Shepherd says he's always had an interest in the region's cuisine, stemming back to dining at a Lebanese steakhouse in his hometown of Tulsa, OK.

“As a kid, it was normal to eat tabouli alongside a ribeye, and it wasn’t until later that I realized it was a result of the Lebanese population in Tulsa. Looking back, it was my first time to experience the merging of cultures,” Shepherd said. 

The merging of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine has become trendy nationally in the last few years. Modern Israeli restaurants like Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans have earned wide acclaim, including James Beard Awards for their founding chefs, Michael Solomonov and Alon Shaya.

Shepherd — channeling his inner Yotam Ottolenghi with a Houston-oriented version of those concepts — certainly sounds intriguing.