One of downtown’s most renown bars has new owners who want to refresh the 13-year old establishment. Sean Fitzmaurice and Jace VanHoozer have purchased Reserve 101 from founders Mike Raymond and Steve Long.
After shuttering when the government required all bars to close, Reserve 101 will reopen to the public on Friday, June 12. Although the new owners have been operating the bar since last year, the closure provided them with the opportunity to make both physical and stylistic changes to the venerable whiskey bar, which has long been acclaimed for both its extensive selection as well as its ability to source rare bottles.
The new owners are both Reserve 101 veterans and close friends. VanHoozer has not only worked there for 12 years, serving as general manager for many of them, he also met his wife there. Fitzmaurice has worked at the bar over the last five years. In between pouring drams and talking to customers, the duo tell CultureMap they always imagined how they’d change things if they ever got the opportunity to do so.
“We didn’t buy this for what it is. We bought it for the potential of what it can be,” Fitzmaurice says. “All credit is due to the last regime, but I think it has the potential to be significantly more polished without losing the ribcage of what this place is, without upsetting the people who have supported the bar for years.”
The bar’s location at the corner of Dallas and Caroline makes it a destination for people looking to grab a drink before or after events at either the Toyota Center or House of Blues. With concerts and basketball games on-hold for now, VanHoozer and Fitzmaurice plan to focus on reconnecting with the bar’s regulars who are eager to return and introducing themselves to downtown’s residential population who may have previously overlooked the establishment.
Plans for a full set of renovations had to be shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Fitzmaurice and VanHoozer have made a number of changes to the space, including new paint, a new bar front, and a copper bar top. Behind the bar, the staff has all-new equipment, and the air conditioning has been improved. After a few months, they plan to initiate "phase 2," which will include extending regular service to a lounge space that was typically only used for whiskey classes and transforming an upstairs storage space into “something cool.”
Beyond the physical changes, the new owners want to bring a new attitude to the establishment. When it opened, Reserve 101 was unique. Now, lots of bars and restaurants (in downtown and beyond) can tout their extensive spirit selection. Reserve 101 will remain one of Houston’s great whiskey bars — its selection features 340 different varieties — but the duo also want to expand their offerings with more cocktails and a larger beer selection.
“I think in a lot of whiskey bars, the mentality is you’re lucky to be here with all these different marks,” Fitzmaurice says. “Our mentality is, we took over this place, and we’re lucky to have you here.”
Whiskey fans need not worry; VanHoozer can still debate the merits of various Four Roses recipes with any bourbon enthusiast whose passionate enough to have an opinion on the topic. But the new owners recognize that Reserve can broaden its appeal to the ever-growing population of people who are still discovering what they like, especially some of the local women in whiskey clubs that have popped up over the past couple of years and the lively scene that has blossomed on Facebook.
“In the past, we haven’t focused on local [enthusiasts] to a degree that people see us as you’re lucky to come here to try the bottle you can’t [buy at retail],” VanHoozer says. “In some pockets of the city, we’ve garnered a reputation where maybe we’re a little higher on ourselves than we should be or being a little more exclusive than we should be.”
To help change that perception and to enhance Reserve’s cocktail offerings, the new owners hired veteran bartender Josh Alden, who brings experience from places such as Wooster’s Garden, Moving Sidewalk, and Mongoose versus Cobra. He’s joined by Rachel Tate, who has worked at Reserve previously.
“You can’t work here unless you’re a better bartender than me,” Fitzmaurice says. “To be clear, I think I’m a damn good bartender, but I think this place deserves someone behind the bar better than me. That’s the benchmark in bringing a team together.”
Taken together, the changes will preserve what's made Reserve 101 successful — its extensive whiskey selection and super-knowledgable staff — while broadening its appeal and making it more welcoming to people who want a shot of Jack Daniels and a cold beer. Operating as a bar that's equally comfortable for attorney drinking 18-year old Scotch and Rockets fans looking for a post-game cocktail? That sounds like a path to 13 more years of success.