Food for Thought

Restaurants buck the Alabama Theater interior demolition trend and hold onto Houston history

Restaurants buck the Alabama Theater interior demolition trend and hold onto Houston history

News_restaurant_Hugo's
Hugo’s is housed in a 1926 building that was the Imperial Plumbing Supply and the fact that you’re dining on fabulous food in a piece of historical Houston just adds to the total event. Photo by Paula Murphy
News_Marene_Memories of Restaurants_March 2012_Francie Mendenhall_at El Real
“A lot of people don’t realize all the history of this building,” Francie Mendenhall said of El Real. “Universal Pictures turned the theater into a live venue in 1979 for the first off-Broadway run of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "I played the role of Amber, renamed Angel because they said I sang like an angel. It ran here for a year.” Photo by Marene Gustin
News_Alabama Theater_construction_Trader Joe's_renovation
I watched a worker carting the remnants of the old Alabama Theater out to dumpsters in the shared parking lot and sighed. Photo by Tyler Rudick
News_Marene_Memories of Restaurants_March 2012_Laikan Hoang_at Mo Mong
“When my parents opened the restaurant 15 years ago the door was still there,” Laikan Hoang said of Mo Mong. “And the backstage dressing rooms had a door out to the patio.” Photo by Marene Gustin
News_Tower Theater_neon lights
And if you have any personal memories of the Tower Theater, I’d love to hear about them. Photo by Clifford Pugh
News_restaurant_Hugo's
News_Marene_Memories of Restaurants_March 2012_Francie Mendenhall_at El Real
News_Alabama Theater_construction_Trader Joe's_renovation
News_Marene_Memories of Restaurants_March 2012_Laikan Hoang_at Mo Mong
News_Tower Theater_neon lights

Walking into PetSmart the other day I watched a worker carting the remnants of the old Alabama Theater out to dumpsters in the shared parking lot and sighed.

It’s one of the givens in Houston: It will be hot. There will be traffic jams and mosquito hordes. And we will destroy our history.

Clearly, sometimes buildings do outlive their usefulness, and sometimes they are weren’t built to stand the test of time or sometimes owners just let them go to pot, beyond the point of repair.

 It’s one of the givens in Houston: It will be hot. There will be traffic jams and mosquito hordes. And we will destroy our history. 

But it’s nice — from both and environmental and emotional standpoints — to find a building that whispers about its past, its memories and history. Particularly if that building houses a restaurant.

Clearly, James Beard Award-nominated Hugo Ortega’s food would taste just as wonderful served in some new, boring building. But eating is about more than just the taste, it’s about the total experience and that includes the ambiance of where you eat. Hugo’s is housed in a 1926 building that was the Imperial Plumbing Supply and the fact that you’re dining on fabulous food in a piece of historical Houston just adds to the total event.

And it’s nice to know that history.

There are several city restaurants housed in old homes. Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Wine Bar is housed in the circa-1880 De Chaumes family home that was moved to its current location in the Gardens of Bammel Lane in 1984. I don’t know much about the family’s history, what their life was like in the home and what meals were served there, but I do know that chef/owner Phillip Mitchell grew up down the street from the house in its original location in the Third Ward.

And it’s little details like that that make for an interesting meal.

Everyone pretty much knows that Mark’s American Cuisine was once a church and then a head shop, and we all know the new, cool Underbelly and The Hay Merchant were once the legendary lesbian bar Chances. But before that the space was also a burger joint.

“We did our best to preserve the building,” said Collaborative Projects’ Jim Herd, who did the redesign of the building and remembers going there for hamburgers when it was Charlie’s Coffee Shop in the 1970s.

Right across the street is the Tower Theater, a 1936 movie house that now is home to El Real Tex-Mex. The last tenant was a Hollywood Video store (back when people actually left their homes to rent movies) but there’s more to the history of this building that I wasn’t aware of.

I recently sat down to lunch there with longtime friend Francie Mendenhall. It was her first time to eat at El Real and she was excited, telling me how she’d seen movies there when she was growing up in Houston.

 “We did our best to preserve the building,” says Collaborative Projects’ Jim Herd, who did the redesign of the building and remembers going there for hamburgers. 

Now there’s a lot I know about Mendenhall. She’s a great person, a good friend and really talented. And when I say talented I mean she has a wonderful singing voice and is a wonderful actor. She started performing in her father’s old Playhouse Theater, did a stint on KHOU-TV’s kiddie show Looney Auctions and, most famously, was one of the original Dean Martin Golddiggers from 1970 to 1973.

She also dated the late Davy Jones, but that’s another story.

So it was cool listening to her talk about watching movies in the venue where we were eating chili con queso and sipping margaritas but it was when she said she’d actually performed here that I really sat up and took notice.

“A lot of people don’t realize all the history of this building,” she said. “Universal Pictures turned the theater into a live venue in 1979 for the first off-Broadway run of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I played the role of Amber, renamed Angel because they said I sang like an angel. It ran here for a year.”

Of course it makes sense that Whorehouse would come to Houston after its Broadway success in 1978. It’s based on the true story of the Chicken Ranch that was brought down by Houston’s Marvin Zindler. The book was written by Texans Larry L. King and Peter Masterson and directed by Masterson and Texan Tommy Tune, who also did the choreography.

After lunch Mendenhall and I strolled around the building to where an empty space sits between El Real and Mo Mong Vietnamese Restaurant.

‘This is where the stage was,” she pointed out. “And the backstage was in there.”

We popped into Mo Mong to look at the sidewall where the stage exit had been and when we explained to Laikan Hoang what we were looking at she chimed in with her knowledge.

“When my parents opened the restaurant 15 years ago the door was still there,” Hoang said. “And the backstage dressing rooms had a door out to the patio.”

“That’s were we’d step out to smoke,” Mendenhall added.

Hoang also added that after the theater closed it became Decadance and Clubland discos before becoming the video store.

So kudos to the two restaurants that saved this bit of Houston history and next time you dine at either one think of all the memories that live in this building.

And if you have any personal memories of the Tower Theater, I’d love to hear about them.