By any measure, 2014 has been an exceptional year for Houston restaurants. Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd took home the city's first James Beard Award in 22 years, and Houston played host for three days to one of the world's best restaurants.
Add to that a seemingly never ending parade of high quality openings, and it's easy to conclude that dining in the Bayou City has never been better.
Of course, not everything that happened this year was positive. The participants in Houston's restaurant scene gave diners plenty to talk about other than new dishes and creative cocktails. Read on for our picks of the six most scandalous moments of the year:
Restaurant owner shouts at Alison Cook
Fusion Taco owner Julia Sharaby needed a way to express her displeasure with being excluded from Chronicle critic Alison Cook's list of Houston's Top 100 restaurants. Rather than write a letter to the editor or send out angry tweets, Sharaby hurled insults at Cook in front of downtown bar Public Services Wine & Whisky.
Neither ever commented on Sharaby's rant, but it's safe to say that Fusion Taco is unlikely to appear in 2015's Top 100.
Neither Cook nor Sharaby ever commented publicly on the details of Sharaby's rant, but it's safe to say that Fusion Taco is unlikely to appear in 2015's Top 100.
Pizza chef fired over burger dispute
The career of rising star chef Rishi Singh took an abrupt turn in August when he was suddenly fired from his position as the executive chef of Boheme for refusing to roll out a menu of burger specials before he'd had time to develop proper recipes. Chefs leave kitchens all the time, of course, but the abrupt nature of Singh's dismissal after he had put the wine bar on the map as a food destination had tongues wagging.
Singh didn't have to wait long before he found a new position as the chef at Dry Creek where he's — what else — responsible for rolling out a new menu of burgers.
Brewpub loses lease after naked Twister
The League of Extraordinary Brewers and its companion business Brewery Incubator lost its lease in August. While that happens with some regularity, the circumstances surrounding the eviction made it memorable. Brewpub owner Lucrece Borrego accused the landlord of wanting to remove her to get out of a below-market lease rate, but a letter from the landlord's attorney told a different tale.
In addition to a history of late rent payments, the letter cited the discovery by another tenant of a group of "several naked males (who) were seen in the common area hallway, common area bathroom, and . . . within the Lease Premises." They were supposedly playing a game of naked Twister.
Borrego considered fighting the eviction, but lacked the funds to do so. Instead, she threw a blowout bash and moved onto another project.
Osteria Mazzantini to close, then doesn't
When it opened in the fall of 2013, Osteria Mazzantini seemed to have everything going for it. Chef/owner John Sheely's restaurant Mockingbird Bistro is well thought of, and he recruited a top-notch staff including executive chef Paul Lewis, sous chef Matthew Lovelace, bartender Kimberly Paul and sommelier Samantha Porter.
Despite earning critical praise, the restaurant never quite found an audience though.
In June, Sheely refuted rumors that the restaurant was on the brink of closing. A week later, Sheely revealed that he would close Osteria Mazzantini and turn the space over to Ruggles Green, but the deal fell through a few days later.
Mazzantini remains open, for now, but it lost most of its most important employees. Lewis and Lovelace moved to Paul's Kitchen and took pastry chef Kelsey Hawkins with them. Similar turnover occurred among the front of house staff.
Periodically, rumors swirl that another restaurant is close to a deal to replace Mazzantini, but at a reported lease rate of almost $50 per square foot it's going to take a very special concept, or a very determined operator, to accept the challenge of life in Caracol's prodigious shadow.
Olivier thrown out of HRW over menu dispute
Part of the appeal of Houston Restaurant Weeks is in its predictability. Diners can use the event's website to look up menus and know what they're going to receive ahead of time. However, Montrose French restaurant L'Olivier broke this cardinal rule by providing one menu to Restaurant Weeks organizer Cleverley Stone that listed a three-course, $20 lunch.
Crying bait and switch, Stone kicked L'Olivier out of Restaurant Weeks.
However, when diners arrived at the restaurant they received a three-course, $30 lunch menu. Crying bait and switch, Stone removed L'Olivier from the event. Chef/owner Olivier Ciesielski fired back, telling CultureMap in an email that Stone was denying money to charity over a misunderstanding.
Stone refused to relent, and HRW raised a record $1.6 million for the Houston Food Bank. No word on what L'Olivier donated separately.
Zelko Bistro fights with its landlord and gets in trouble with the State of Texas
Tagging this quiet, Heights, comfort food restaurant as the most scandalous restaurant story of 2014 may surprise some, but consider the following. The first sign of trouble occurred on July 22 when realtor Mike Huff placed a for lease sign in front of the restaurant.
Zelko responded by filing suit against its landlord, Pappa K, LLC, to block being evicted. Without offering an opinion on the merits of either party's claims, Treadsack co-owner Chris Cusack did tell CultureMap that Pappa K's proposed new lease rate is fair for the area. A trial to resolve the dispute has been scheduled for March.
No sooner had Zelko settled into pre-trial peacefulness than it appeared in the news again due to a conflict with State of Texas. A tweeting diner noticed an agent from the State Comptroller's Office, accompanied by a uniformed State Trooper, counting the cash in the restaurant's register. In an email, co-owner Dalia Zelko blamed an "oversight" by the restaurant's CPA, but seemed more interested in celebrating her daughter's birthday than reassuring customers that the restaurant was fully complying with the law.
Say what you want about Dalia and chef Jamie Zelko's skills as restaurant owners, but they do appear to be excellent parents.