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What Recession?

New bars and restaurants brave the dangers of downtown

The economy may be slowing, and light rail construction may be playing havoc with small businesses along its route, but new bars and restaurants are still opening up in downtown Houston.

Just across the street from the recently shuttered Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar (dark as of November 1), a trio of partners has opened a new wine bar in the historic Kennedy-Foley building. Called the Twelve Spot (218 Travis Street, 713-222-1962), the enterprise has a mixed-beverage license and plans to serve a limited menu. Partner Peter A. Garcia, who has operated the Mexican and Cuban cuisine El Meson Restaurant (2425 University Boulevard, 713-522-9306) for some two decades, reports, "We'll have cold appetizers, and we'll install a panini press for Italian hot sandwiches."

The Twelve Spot, named after a species of dragonfly, had been in the works before most of the current downtown bars and restaurants opened. In 1992 the brick building was scheduled for demolition after a fire damaged the DiverseWorks artists' lofts and gallery complex that had been housed there. Sculptor William Lee Benner "sold his pickup truck for $4,000," according to partner Larry Wilsford, and appeared at the public hearing waving an earnest money contract. The city gave Benner 90 days to shore up the weakened structure. "He needed $20,000 for the basic work," Wilsford explains, "which is how Peter got involved."

The actual remodeling work has been going on for five years, with Wilsford acting as general contractor and cabinetmaker and Benner producing a variety of metalwork: banisters, coffee tables, sculptural lights and the signature dragonfly front-door grip. The three-story building has been opened up inside, so that the painted metal ceiling is 42 feet above the stained concrete floor. Bricks salvaged from repair of the walls on the Congress Street side of the structure were recycled to make a mezzanine bar area. Wilsford found "100-year-old red pine" for the wall behind the bar; for the bar itself, says Regina Garcia, he bought a single piece of dark African wenge wood for $1,200. The artistic fixtures are complemented by a selection of oil paintings, four by Ibsen Espada and an enormous abstract oil by John Calaway, whose wife, Laura, was a partner in the enterprise at one time.

In keeping with the creative atmosphere of the place, restaurateur Garcia has developed an elaborate Web site (www.twelvespot.com) that tells the 160-plus-year story of the site in words and vintage photographs. The building was, among other things, a Confederate munitions factory and the site of the original Foley's. The La Carafe bar around the corner was once part of this set of buildings belonging to pioneer baker John Kennedy. Together, they are the oldest Houston structures still standing.

At the opposite end of this block of Travis, and just two weeks earlier, the Cotton Exchange Bar (808 Franklin Street, 713-236-0499) opened for business. The bar is housed in the first-floor trading room of the 1870s-vintage old Cotton Exchange Building, which was restored to period splendor in the 1970s. While many who saw the space over the last quarter-century would comment on what a great setting it would make for a bar or restaurant, it remained a rental space for sporadic events. Club whiz Ronald Marks, who has opened and closed some 18 discos and bars in Houston since entering the profession in the mid-1980s, is the one who finally converted the Cotton Exchange into an elegant bar. He had already established the Travis Cafe (208 Travis, 713-223-4073) in the Hermann Building, which sits between the Kennedy-Foley complex and the Cotton Exchange.

"We're looking for an older crowd," Marks explains. "People who are attending the opera or the ballet rather than the club kids on Main Street." In this, Marks is like his neighbors at the Twelve Spot, where partner Wilsford used almost exactly the same words to describe his hopes for the bar. Twentysomethings may be able to stay out later, but their credit cards tend to max out much earlier. It is one of life's cruelest little ironies.

Two blocks away, in Randall Davis's Hogg Brothers building, the space that saw the short-lived Hogg Grill, the shorter-lived Otto's Barbecue and the stillborn Mason Jar is being prepped for the opening of yet another Youssef Nafaa restaurant. Nafaa, who created the popular Mi Luna tapas bar (2441 University Boulevard, 713-520-5025) and the "Italian with a twist" restaurant Mia Bella (320 Main Street, 713-237-0505), recently opened Zana, a mostly lunch spot in the smaller of the two Hogg Brothers restaurant spaces. Now Nafaa and partner Zack Ateyeu are opening Papillon (401 Louisiana Street, suite 101, 713-222-6583), which is billed as a "bistro français." The larger space has been handsomely done up with tan wood and a giant chandelier. It will feature a menu of Mediterranean fusion lunch dishes in the $7 to $16 range and dinner in the decidedly grown-up price range of $6 to $16 for appetizers and $17 to $32 for entrées. The executive chef of the enterprise is Dominic Juarez.

Papillon is French for "butterfly." The Twelve Spot is named after a dragonfly. Is this a trend? Let's just hope these ventures aren't as flighty as their namesakes.

 
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