Changes at Underbelly
Acclaimed restaurant looks beyond Houston to expand seafood choices, adds cocktails
The menu at Underbelly has always been defined by the way it changes. Chef-owner Chris Shepherd has described it in the past as “consistently inconsistent,” but even by those standards, the restaurant that famously tells “the story of Houston food” by elevating the city’s immigrant food traditions with high quality, locally-sourced ingredients is undergoing a major shift in direction.
Shepherd and business partner Kevin Floyd recently announced that the restaurant will no longer source whole cows, it will start looking beyond Galveston Bay for its seafood, and it will alter its liquor license to begin serving cocktails and spirits at both Underbelly and The Hay Merchant, its craft-beer obsessed sister concept.
Switching from whole steers to buying smaller cuts from 44 Farms will allow Underbelly to focus its menu on seafood and vegetables (it will still butcher pigs, chickens, and goats). Rather than only sourcing fish from local waters, the restaurant will now draw from the entire Gulf coast and the Atlantic as far north as Virginia. Suddenly, everything from crispy Gulf shrimp to Alabama oysters to crab is in play.
The addition of cocktails, a focus on seafood, and serving steaks from 44 Farms have all been successful elements at One Fifth, Shepherd’s ambitious restaurant that will change concepts annually for five years, but Floyd tells CultureMap that experience didn’t directly influence the decision to make changes at Underbelly.
“What this decision to add cocktails and for Chris to move to a whole Gulf seafood program was that it reminded us there were whole aspects of food and beverage that we were involved in prior to opening Underbelly but hadn’t done in five years,” Floyd says. “On the food focus, we had such a hyper local focus, only buying within 100 miles, that came with huge peaks and valleys for Chris . . . Doing One Fifth reminded Chris that if we went a little further (away from) Houston, there’s a whole bunch of cool things we could get.”
New dishes like Szechuan peppercorn-cured cobia crudo and Vietnamese peanut pesto-crusted redfish are designed to appeal to diners looking for a lighter meal that matches summer’s hotter temperatures.
“No one wants a giant beef shank in the middle of a hot Houston summer,” the James Beard Award-winning chef said in a statement. “But in the past, we’ve had to serve it, because we had an entire cow in the butcher shop cooler. Our cooks want more variety, and frankly, so do our guests.”
Adding cocktails provides Shepherd and Floyd with another way to serve their customers. The changes comes with a major downside — Underbelly will no longer offer BYOB or wine to-go and Hay Merchant will no longer fill growlers — but Floyd says to-go sales represented less than one-percent of the restaurants’ total sales. Just as local meat and produce are more common on local menus than they were when Underbelly opened in 2012, Floyd says that the soaring popularity of craft beer has made filling growlers somewhat obsolete.
“Now, especially in the inner city, if you’re going to a bar, they’ll have at least 10 if not 20 craft beers on tap,” Floyd says. “Now you have Eureka Heights and Brash that sell beer to go. For the person looking for that local craft beer experience, they have options. The need to offer that experience at Hay Merchant has declined.”
The restaurants have designed bartender Westin Galleymore to oversee the cocktails at both establishments. For summer, he’s created a tiki-focused menu for Underbelly as well as “covers” of cocktails created at other bars for the happy hour menu served at the restaurant’s wine bar.
“I see Underbelly as bright and open,” Galleymore said. “People are excited to dine here because they know they’ll try something new every time. That’s the way I want the cocktail menu to be—clean, well-sourced and ever evolving.”
Hay Merchant will offer a selection of draft, stirred, and frozen cocktails that are mostly inspired by classics. The H-Town slammer will feature the bar’s own take on SoCo with a blue and orange color scheme to honor the Houston Astros.
Floyd says the shift to cocktails may results in slightly higher checks for diners who swap a $10 glass of wine for a $14 cocktail, but he expects higher costs to soak up the increased revenue.
“We’re not expecting a huge windfall from this,” he says. “The people I think will benefit from this will be the servers.”
At a time when diners have more choices than ever, Underbelly’s new food and drink menus should entice people who haven’t visited the restaurant recently to give it another shot. Embracing these new ingredients should set it up to thrive for the next five years.