Changes at the Tavern

Chris Shepherd shakes up his downtown restaurant with new name and chef

Chris Shepherd shakes up his downtown restaurant with new name, chef

GJ Tavern food spread
Roast chicken anchors the new menu at GJ Tavern. Photo by Julie Soefer
GJ Tavern Tim Reading
Chef Tim Reading now leads the kitchen. Photo by Julie Soefer
GJ Tavern cheeseburger
Reading switched up the signature burger. Photo by Julie Soefer
GJ Tavern food spread
GJ Tavern Tim Reading
GJ Tavern cheeseburger

Chris Shepherd is switching things up at Georgia James Tavern. The downtown restaurant has a new name, GJ Tavern, and a new chef, Caracol and Ixim veteran Tim Reading.

These changes, along with Reading’s new menu, are designed to distinguish GJ Tavern from Georgia James, Shepherd’s luxurious steakhouse that will soon move into its new home in the Regent Square mixed-use development.

When it opened last year, Shepherd conceived of the tavern as a “little sister” to Georgia James with a more casual menu built around sandwiches, salads, and items cooked in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven. However, the chef quickly realized the branding confused customers who saw Georgia James signature dishes like the Slab Salad and wondered why they couldn’t get a baller board, too. 

“We started getting people who showed up [at the tavern] thinking they were going to Georgia James or they showed up there thinking they were going to Georgia James Tavern,” Shepherd tells CultureMap. “It happens way more than we would have thought. Now we had to answer the phones, ‘Georgia James on Westheimer.’”

The tavern needed a more distinct identity that fit its intimate space. Essentially, Shepherd's vision for the restaurant is a place where friends can gather for drinks paired with snacks like raw oysters, roasted almonds, or duck fat fried potatoes. They can also sit for a full meal built around classic dishes like steak, roast chicken, or a cheeseburger.

Initially, Shepherd tasked former UB Preserv chef Nick Wong with leading the tavern, but Wong has decided to leave the company and pursue other opportunities. Reached by text, Wong says he’s looking forward to a little time off to recharge before making his next move.

Wong’s departure paved the way for Reading. The East Coast native opened his Mexican restaurant Ixim at Bravery Chef Hall after working at James Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega’s seafood restaurant Caracol. It earned praise from critics, including a spot on Texas Monthly’s best new restaurants list, but dishes like fideo with seafood and pork and lamb meatballs failed to connect with diners. After pivoting to a more approachable menu built around tacos, Reading says he reached out to Underbelly Hospitality culinary director Nick Fine about joining the company. Shepherd saw an opportunity for Reading to help turn the tavern around.

“He understands this kind of food being from the East Coast,” Shepherd says. “It’s everyday food, and he came from that. He said I’ve wanted to be a part of this team since he moved here.”

Reading has a clear vision for GJ Tavern that’s grounded in well-executed versions of familiar dishes. He’s tweaked dishes like roast chicken by adding a chicken jus and a side of asparagus, brought back the fryer so that his burger comes with fries instead of chips, and recommitted to serving raw oysters (topped with a sweet and spicy cucumber-jalapeno mignonette). Other new dishes include a hand-pulled stracciatella with basil pesto and a handmade cavatelli pasta with duck confit and crispy duck cracklins. Overall, the menu has six more items on it than it did before, a response to customers who asked for more choices.

“If you can have a perfectly cooked chicken or pork chop or steak every time, that’s a tavern for me,” Reading says. ‘The drinks are going to be delicious. The atmosphere is going to be great. The food will be consistent. It’s going to be fun. You can bring clients here, friends here. You can do a lot of stuff here.”

Reading even tweaked the restaurant’s burger — yes, the one that Chronicle critic Alison Cook awarded an A-plus in her Burger Friday column — by changing from a single, 6-ounce patty to two, 3-ounce patties and topping it with seared mushrooms, Swiss cheese, horseradish sauce, and fried onions. Moving to smaller patties allows the burger to be cooked more quickly, Reading notes. The burger had always been one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, but Shepherd encouraged the new chef to put his mark on it.

“It’s the same thing back at Catalan, everybody loved the foie gras bon bons and the pork belly on the skewer,” Shepherd says, citing two of the signature items at the restaurant where he first rose to prominence. “You’ve gotta change that shit every once in awhile.

“I had it for the first time yesterday. It was absolutely delicious.”