The Biggest Restaurant Closings
The biggest restaurant closings in Houston: Failures no one saw coming, chef drama and more
Few aspects of life in Houston demonstrate how constant change is than the city's restaurant scene. A beloved honky tonk could get torn down for parking at a moment's notice. A high-profile chef could suddenly depart for greener pastures. A foodie destination could shutter rather than renew its lease and attempt to broaden its audience.
Consider, for example, Ruthie Miller's very first edition of what has become a CultureMap staple: The monthly Where To Eat Right Now column. Seven of the 10 restaurants featured in that first November 2010 column are gone, including well-regarded restaurants like Bootsie's and a proven concept from an experienced restaurateur in Tony Vallone's Caffe Bello.
While it maintained a certain popularity, Feast's prestige and media attention never quite matched its cover counts.
Who would have expected Midtown pizza joint Piola would outlast downtown South American steakhouse Samba Grille? After all, Samba was really good and seemed poised to break through in its high profile Bayou Place location. Until it didn't.
With CultureMap set to celebrate its fifth anniversary with a party on Oct. 10, we're taking a look back at some of the biggest stories of the last five years. Below are my picks for the most significant restaurant closings during that span. Despite protests from my colleagues, I passed on empty flame outs like Katsuya. A restaurant that had more style than substance shouldn't have a spot on this list.
The restaurants that made this list all meet the following criteria: They mattered when they opened, they were well-regarded during their runs and people still speak wistfully of them today.
Honorable Mention: Textile
Scott Tycer's temple of Modern American cuisine opened to great fanfare and was certainly ahead of many popular trends. While it offered an a la carte menu, diners were encouraged to order a tasting menu, five or seven courses for a then unheard of $85 or $115. Tycer brought in top talent, too, with sous chef Dax McAnear (who recently departed Underbelly) and then Ryan Hildebrand (now chef/owner of Triniti) working the savory side. Pastry chef Plinio Sandalio captivated foodies with elaborate, multi-course dessert tastings.
The closing was rumored for awhile before Tycer finally pulled the plug. At the time, he suggested possibly reopening in another location but has since scaled down to focus on his successful Kraftsmen Baking operation: Closing Gravitas (with its old space now taken by The Pass & Provisions) and shuttering the Montrose location of Kraftsmen Cafe to make way for the Eatsie Boys.
The Upper Kirby restaurant seemingly had it all: A high-profile location just off Kirby Drive, a well-regarded chef in Randy Evans and a winning concept in locally sourced Texas comfort food. Haven rode the burgeoning interest in local sourcing and seasonal eating to critical adulation and even added a second concept with Cove Cold Bar.
Sadly, all the shrimp corn dogs and crusty yeast rolls in the world couldn't save the restaurant.
Sadly, all the shrimp corn dogs and crusty yeast rolls in the world couldn't save the restaurant, which struggled to attract a consistent audience as the years wore on. It closed in July to make way for Paul's Kitchen, a soon-to-open restaurant that will bring together Union Kitchen owner Paul Miller with former Osteria Mazzantini chef Paul Lewis.
Remember the wave of 1950s nostalgia that swept the country during the first season of Mad Men? Don Draper's story may be drawing to a close, but the fall of 2009 saw Houstonians heading to Tanglewood to sample prime rib and lobster Thermidore from former Max's Wine Dive chef Michael dei Maggi.
The restaurant sported some other future all stars in the form of Ryan Hildebrand, his now sous-chef Greg Lowry and Eleven XI general manager Joe Welborn. Trouble loomed when Hildebrand quickly departed for Textile. Original partner Robert Hall and beverage director Derek Black didn't last long either. Mixedreviews and rumors of behind the scenes shenanigans forced it to shutter after a six-month run.
The Rockwood Room stands as a cautionary tale of the perils of undercapitalized, overly ambitious concepts with so-so execution. Today's hot new thing can be tomorrow's empty space if chefs aren't careful about their operations. Currently, South American favorite Latin Bites occupies the space where Rockwood Room operated.
Back in 2009, Bryan Caswell was in full empire builder mode. Reef was widely considered one of Houston's best restaurants: The first to serve a wide variety of Gulf seafood beyond snapper and oysters. Stella Sola's moved into the former Bedford restaurant space (which could also have made this list) as a natural expansion of his brand with its hybrid Texan-Tuscan menu featuring a full housemade charcuterie program by chef de cuisine Justin Basye and a cocktail program developed by Anvil's Bobby Heugel.
It opened to raves and didn't seem to miss a beat when Basye suddenly left and Adam Dorris took over. A host of young up and coming chefs, including Underbelly's Lyle Bento, Vic & Anthony's executive chef Michael O'Connor and Goro & Gun's J.D. Woodward, all spent time in the kitchen under either Basye or Dorris.
Alas, when Dorris announced his departure, Caswell and partner Bill Floyd elected to close the restaurant. Ronnie Killen briefly considered the space for a new steakhouse, but ultimately couldn't agree on terms. The space sits empty to this day, but Basye and Dorris are responsible for two of 2014's hottest openings: Museum Park Cafe and Pax Americana.
Before Houstonians booked tables weeks in advance for Korean braised goat and dumplings at Underbelly, Chris Shepherd held court at Catalan. Although the restaurant had a vaguely Spanish theme meant to play off owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper's other restaurant Ibiza, Shepherd mostly followed his own muse: Sourcing high-quality local ingredients and serving dishes inspired by global street food. Antonio Gianola's wine list was so well-regarded he departed with plans to open his own restaurant.
Ultimately, Shepherd left to open the restaurant where he'd win a James Beard Award, taking sous chef Antoine Ware with him for The Hay Merchant (Ware is now the executive chef of The Heights General Store). Realizing they couldn't keep Catalan without Shepherd, Clark and Cooper tapped then Pappas chef Brandi Key to open Coppa, which has since spun off a more casual sister concept in Rice Village.
Gianola's plans fizzled, but he can be found leading Houston's best wine store, Houston Wine Merchant.
Feast had it all. A menu that listed the farms and ranches where it sourced ingredients? Check. A menu where the dishes changed nightly? Check. A menu full of interesting dishes that included both offal and maybe the best braised chicken ever? Check plus.
The restaurant earned raves, even attracting the attention of then New York Times critic Frank Bruni. While it maintained a certain popularity, Feast's prestige and media attention never quite matched its cover counts. A failed attempt to open in New Orleans didn't help.
When its lease expired after five years, co-owners Megan and James Silk and Richard Knight elected to go their separate ways. The Silks departed the restaurant industry and moved to Brooklyn. Knight stuck around, partnering with the Down House crew on Hunky Dory, which has survived permitting delays and looks set to open next spring.
Miffed that I slighted Bootsie's? Upset that I left Samba Grille off the list? Hit the comments and share what else is missing.