King of Kirby
The King of Kirby builds his Houston restaurant empire: It's a neighborhood thing
The King of Kirby Drive, otherwise known as Johnny Carrabba, is about to open his third new restaurant in the neighborhood in two years. Across from the new Carrabba’s, the huge brick façade of Grace’s is almost finished.
“We’re hoping to open the second week in February,” Carrabba says. “But you never know with new buildings.” Grace’s was originally set to open last fall. (CultureMap was the first outlet to break the news of the new restaurant.)
“It will be just as casual as Carrabba’s, but the menu will be very different,” Carrabba says.
When Carrabba started to build a multi-story garage on Argonne Street it seemed like overkill for the original Carrabba’s on Kirby Drive that Carrabba and his uncle, Damian Mandola, opened in 1986. Not to be confused with the corporate chain of Carrabba’s now in 32 states which was a joint venture with Outback Steakhouse, Inc. The Carrabba family owns and operates the original and another location on Voss.
Johnny doesn’t have anything to do with the chain anymore but he does get a nice royalty from the franchise.
Besides employees who have been there since day one, some loyal customers have also been eating there for 27 years.
Shortly after the garage came Mia’s, named for Carrabba’s daughter and opened in 2012. A fast casual eatery with the feel of a Hill Country restaurant, the place is always packed with those who love the chicken fingers and cream gravy, squared hamburgers, milkshakes and, of course, the free soft serve ice cream.
And then came the new “original” Carrabba’s just next door to the original. A larger, prettier version of the 1986 restaurant, that features an open kitchen, private rooms and a pizza bar with a wood-burning oven where you can sit and watch Rueben, who’s been making pizzas since the first day in 1986, make your pie.
“I was across the street at Mr. Car Wash one day when they were cutting down all the big trees along Kirby Drive,” Carrabba recalls. “And I looked at Carrabba’s and it just looked old. It was like a revelation.”
That’s when he decided to rebuild it from the ground up. And, since he had a lot of land around Kirby Drive, he decided to build two more restaurants as well. And thus was born a small eating empire.
“I like family owned businesses,” he says. “I want the neighborhood to feel like we’re part of their family.”
And they do. Besides employees who have been at Carrabba’s since day one, there are local customers who have also been eating there for 27 years.
“I pinch myself everyday,” he says. “Twenty seven years and we’re still going strong because we go back to our original vision, quality food, good service and a neighborhood feel.”
Family Vision, Family Restaurant
The new Carrabba’s bears the name Johnny IV on the side of the building, a nod to Carrabba’s son. And Grace’s is named for his grandmother.
“Without her,” says Carrabba, “there wouldn’t be a Carrabba’s or a Mandola’s or anything else.” She was the family foodie matriarch.
“I like family owned businesses. I want the neighborhood to feel like we’re part of their family.”
Expect Grace’s to look like your grandma’s home, with smaller rooms inside the 10,000-square-foot house. Carrabba says it will feel intimate and cozy and will serve up American comfort food, not Italian.
“Chicken pot pie, Gulf Coast seafood, smoked rib roast, very eclectic,” he says. “You can get a hamburger or steak or fish. It will have a very different feel from Carrabba’s or Mia’s.”
Restaurants have come and gone along this neck of Kirby Drive, think of Pesce and Hawthorn, Ava and Alto. But somehow Carrabba continues to thrive adding new restaurants without drawing business away from the original Carrabba’s.
When the new building opened I was at that same fateful car wash across the street. Despite the ongoing construction at the site there was a huge sign declaring “Now Open.”
I hightailed it across the street and snagged a table before the crowd came. Pretty soon there was a line snaking out the door waiting for tables. And this was without any advertising, except the sign, and no real buzz on social media or food blogs.
Clearly, Johnny Carrabba is doing something right.