One thing that's characterized the wave of bars and restaurants that have opened in downtown since the end of 2012 is that each has brought something that sets it apart from what else has opened around it. From OKRA (donates its profits to charity) to Bad News Bar (beautiful space, killer cocktails) to newcomers like Public Services (full service, bar snacks by Oxheart) to Henke & Pillot (very shiny), each establishment has something about it that makes it an appealing destination depending on one's mood.
Similarly, the two places that have already closed, Goro & Gun and Clutch City Squire, lacked the sort of focused perspective that gives people a reason to keep coming back. If Goro had delivered on its promise to serve great ramen it might still be around, but I digress. The point is that each establishment's independent identity is what at least some people (i.e., me) find appealing about downtown when compared to the clubs that are popular in Midtown.
Which brings me to downtown's newest establishment, Bovine & Barley. What is it? How does that fit into downtown? Is it likely to last?
Outside of The Flying Saucer, none of the other bars in downtown can touch Bovine & Barley's beer selection.
As its name implies, Bovine & Barley features beef in various forms and barley in the form of 42 craft beer taps that mix the usual local favorites like Karbach, Saint Arnold and Buffalo Bayou with favorites from abroad like Goose Island.
It fits into the historic district well, too, with an industrial look complemented by wooden accents, a ceiling covered in coffee bags and a signature lighting fixture that reads HTX. The U-shaped bar dominates the center of the space, while booths and high-top tables line either wall. A second-story private dining room already had an after-work event on Thursday night even though the bar is still in its soft-opening phase.
Having established what it is, how does that fit into downtown?
Most importantly, outside of The Flying Saucer, none of the other bars in downtown can touch Bovine & Barley's beer selection. Serving craft beer has proven profitable for many establishments — and that seems likely to draw people in. If the prices are a little high — $8 each for a Lone Pint Yellow Rose and a Saint Arnold Icon Blue — that probably won't stop people from ordering a brew or two.
Unfortunately, the rest of Bovine & Barley feels very much like a work in progress. Service was friendly but didn't seem very knowledgeable about the food or beer selection. Currently, the only way to know what's on tap is to read the handles, which can be inconvenient the farther away one is from the wall. That also led to a couple of customers asking for beers that aren't available. Hopefully, a printed menu is on the way.
Similarly, of the four bar snacks on the soft-opening menu, the one that stood out the most was the jalapeno bacon bites — jalapeno bacon wrapped around pineapple and cream cheese and then baked. After all, sweet and smoky with a little spice is usually a winning combination. On the other hand, "steak on a stick" — kebabs with grilled peppers — were mushy and flavorless. Meatloaf muffins, really just meatballs with a little tomato sauce, had the familiar flavors of the comfort classic, but I couldn't detect any of the advertised jalapeno in the mashed potatoes.
Of course, it's too soon to write off Bovine & Barley. After all, the soft-opening has only been going on for a few days, and the owners' pedigrees offer reasons for optimism.
Co-owner Michael Collins has a hit with Midtown's The Refinery and brings his experiences as co-owner of Midtown sushi restaurant The Fish; he also brings Fish chef Harold Wong, who present Thursday night helping to tweak the menu. Co-owner Jason Lowery previously owned Proof Rooftop Lounge, prior to selling it last year. If nothing else, Collins' success at The Refinery bodes well for the burgers that Bovine & Barley will introduce next week.
I'll go back after a couple of weeks to evaluate it for the May edition of Where to Eat Right Now. That prime rib sandwich certainly sounds good.