After 10 years on Westheimer, Chris Shepherd will overhaul his restaurant operations in early 2022. The James Beard Award-winning chef announced that he will move his luxurious steakhouse Georgia James from its current home to the Regent Square mixed-use development that’s currently under construction at the corner of Dunlavy and West Dallas and close Hay Merchat, his comfort food restaurant and craft beer bar — at least for now.
Both Georgia James and Hay Merchant will operate in their current location at 1100 Westheimer until the end of 2021. One Fifth, Shepherd’s rotating restaurant concept that’s currently serving Italian-American food, will also remain open through the end of the year. All three restaurants will close in their current locations at the end of this year.
In early 2022, Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality will open three new restaurants: the relocated Georgia James; a second, still unnamed project at Regent Square that will replace the live fire concept Shepherd announced in March; and Wild Oats, chef Nick Fine’s ode to modern Texas cuisine that will open at the Houston Farmers Market.
“It’s going to be a banging first quarter for Underbelly Hospitality,” Shepherd tells CultureMap. “That’s how we do it.”
Moving Georgia James to Regent Square comes with a number of advantages. First, the expansive new location will both seat approximately 240 people downstairs and offer an upstairs lounge that Shepherd says will take its design inspiration from his parents’ living room — aka, the restaurant’s namesakes — complete with a built-in fireplace and outdoor seating. The restaurant will operate similarly to how it does now, complete with cast iron-seared steaks, an open kitchen, and the over the top baller boards.
Those elements have helped Georgia James earn wide acclaim, including being named the state’s best new restaurant of 2019 by Texas Monthly and the Robb Report selecting Shepherd as the world's best chef.
Leaving the current building also removes Georgia James from potential disruptions by imminent street construction on Waugh and whatever closures take place as Skanska redevelops the property at Montrose and Westheimer that previously housed Spec’s and Half Price Books. The aging building, previously home to a lesbian bar named Chances, needs significant work, according to Shepherd, and he's ready to be in new construction that will need less of his attention.
“At this point, we’ve been at 1100 Westhemier for 10 years,” he says. “We’re getting ready to have to redo the ACs, put a ton of money into it. This is a better financial decision and a better placement for it, so let’s just move.”
Hay Merchant’s immediate future is less certain. It will neither be the second concept in Regent Square nor does the chef have another space for it at this time. Shepherd says that he likes the casual, affordable concept, but a new location would be different than the current iteration. Originally known for its extensive craft beer selection, the concept has evolved into a comfort food restaurant that’s as much of a destination for the PB&J wings and Cease and Desist burger — a version of which will be served at Underbelly Burger that’s opening this fall at the Houston Farmers Market — as it is for what’s on tap.
“The dynamic of that restaurant has changed,” he says. ‘When we redo it, we’ll rethink that. I don’t think I’d have 70 taps. That’s not me, but the food program will move forward.”
Georgia James will continue under the leadership of its current executive chef, Greg Peters, and general manager, Raul Lorenzana. Current Hay Merchant and One Fifth employees will have the opportunity to transition to the new Georgia James, Wild Oats, or the other new restaurant opening at Regent Square.
While Shepherd isn’t quite ready to say what that new restaurant will be, he acknowledges it might become a permanent home for one of One Fifth’s concepts. Could the decision to keep its current, Red Sauce iteration open through the end of the year be a hint of what’s to come? Stay tuned.