UPDATE: Since the publication of this article on the morning of Monday, October 28, a group of El Real employees have alleged that Bryan Caswell owes them wages for work they did prior to the restaurant’s closure.
Caswell told our content partner ABC13 that he will satisfy these obligations by Friday, November 1. In the meantime, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has started a gofundme in support of the workers.
A representative for Caswell provided the following statement in response to CultureMap's request for comment:
My team and I are working as diligently as possible to ensure all El Real staff members receive their final checks as soon as possible. In the meantime I will be lending my support to the staff, offering positions at Reef if possible, and connecting them to industry friends for other job options.
When you work with people for a long period of time, you develop camaraderie and friendships. I hope all the El Real staff knows that although I may not have handled the closing as gracefully as I could have, I am still available to them.
We have begun to distribute checks, and understand how important it is to make sure every employee is compensated for their time at El Real. I’m sincerely sorry for the financial discomfort that this has caused a team that I’ve grown to love and respect, and it’s my top priority to get them taken care of.
One of Montrose's favorite destinations for fajitas and frozen margaritas has served its last tortillas. El Real Tex-Mex Cafe closed after service on Sunday, October 27, chef-owner Bryan Caswell tells CultureMap.
The chef explains that the restaurant simply wasn't making enough money to remain a viable concern. Negotiations that would have transferred majority ownership to a different operator fell though. Currently going through a divorce, Caswell says he wants to concentrate on Reef, his Midtown seafood restaurant that reopened this summer, while maintaining an acceptable work-life balance.
"I want to be at Reef every day," he says. "I like what we’re doing at Reef. I like the food that’s coming out."
Still, the decision comes with some sadness for Caswell. Owning a restaurant in Montrose had been one of his oldest career goals.
"When I first decided I wanted to own a restaurant, Montrose was the only place I wanted it," he says. "I remember that like it was yesterday. I thought it’d be in an old space like Mark’s or Michelangelo’s. I always wanted to be on Westheimer. It was a dream come true having that space."
When it opened in 2011, El Real united Caswell, then Houston's hottest chef, then-business partner Bill Floyd, and cookbook author-former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh. The restaurant transformed the historic Tower Theater from a video store into a massive, 9,000-square foot restaurant. Chef and author teamed up to create the menu, which paid homage to classic Tex-Mex restaurants like Felix Mexican Restaurant and included unexpected dishes like San Antonio-style puffy tacos.
Early reviews were mixed, but the restaurant settled into a comfortable middle age. Powered by the popular Montrose Mondays promotion, when food was half-price for neighborhood residents, El Real became a neighborhood staple.
Caswell concedes that getting the service right in the 300-seat restaurant always proved difficult, but he paid tribute to the kitchen staff that served consistently satisfying food.
"We bled together. I love them to death," he says. "Mercedes, she was my first hire at Hotel Icon, she’s been with me for 15 years. They’re like family members of mine."