Food for Thought
Houston's wild April Fools restaurant: Owner's been fighting a sign war — and over pouring — for decades
If it were a person, it now would be legally able to drink the over pours the restaurant serves. Seriously, use two hands for that first sip of wine or you may splash liquid over the rim. Not that I’m complaining.
For those who know owner Mickey Kapoor’s wicked sense of humor it’s no surprise he opened the eatery on April Fools' Day. He did it so he could say “April Fools!” when customers showed up.
Khyber isn’t the best Indian restaurant in Houston, and many who prefer the spicy southern cuisine find the food rather bland. But I’m a big fan of the grilled meats, the chicken tikka and beef kabobs, as well as the saag paneer and hot naan bread fresh from the tandoor oven that are featured on the lunch buffet.
But the real claim to fame is the battling signs. Khyber is sandwiched between two Papas eateries, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen on one side of Richmond Ave. and Little Pappasito’s on the other.
“They bring a bit of humor and a smile to everyone’s day. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone.”
Kapoor, who jokes that he originally wanted to call his restaurant Papa Gandhi’s (wiser heads prevailed), was sitting outside Khyber about the third day after it opened in 1994 and looking at the two competing restaurant marquees with interest. The Pappadeaux’s sign advertised blackened tuna as the daily special.
Kapoor promptly grabbed a ladder and changed his sign to read “Accidents Happen.”
And thus the two-decade-old battle of the signs was born.
In the early years it could get pretty hysterical.
“They started with ‘Hiring today, 3 to 5’,” Kapoor says, recalling a day when his neighbors changed their sign five times. “So I put up ‘My, you start them young.’ An hour later they changed it to ‘Hiring waiters, hosts and bussers’ so I said ‘Planning to go into the restaurant business?’ Then they changed it to ‘Hiring all positions’ and I put up ‘Missionaries need not apply.’ Then it was ‘Hiring a few smiling faces’ and I replied ‘Start the day with a smile and get it over with.’ Finally they said ‘Now interviewing servers’ and I said ‘Now serving users.’”
Once when both Pappas eateries left their signs blank. Khyber’s sign read, “Give up?”
A Pappas manager once asked Kapoor why he was taunting them and he replied that he was really in the sign mocking business, but the city made him build a restaurant in order to have a sign. That’s typical of his humor.
“The staff at both restaurants looks forward to reading the Khyber Grill marquee every day,” responds Christina Pappas of the restaurant family. “They bring a bit of humor and a smile to everyone’s day. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone.”
"Their signs are getting lame, it’s getting hard to make fun of them.”
But after 21 years, do both sides need to pick up their game?
Last week, while lunching there I watched the Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen crew change their sign to read “Last Chance for Gulf Oysters, $9.95 Mon – Thurs.”
“Is this the Mayans again?” he asks. “Is this the end? Their signs are getting lame, it’s getting hard to make fun of them.”
The feeling may be mutual, but the fact remains that people who are aware of the sign game still slow down on Richmond Avenue to read them and they draw attention and eaters to all three restaurants. And Kapoor is still a pretty funny guy.
As I was leaving Khyber I stopped at the bar looking for the traditional roasted fennel seeds many Indian restaurants offer at the door. There was a bowl of complimentary mints so I asked the bartender for “the good stuff” and he whipped a bowl of fennel seeds out from underneath the bar.
“If we were in Colorado I could keep them out,” quips Kapoor. “You know if you’re in Colorado and see a sign that says 'Keep off the grass' it means 'No Smoking.'
He’s a funny guy.