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Close your eyes in Spindletop's circular dining room and you can barely feel the motion. It's like a slow, "clutch in" drift backward during rush-hour traffic. Or, perhaps, the crawling pace of an AstroWorld kiddie boat. The gentle, deliberate pull registers with your body's motion sensors only if you actively think about it.
But open your eyes, and a set of dramatic visual cues gives the motion a distinct purpose. The unhurried movement spins you through a skyline view of Houston as you sit atop downtown's Hyatt Regency Hotel, 30 stories in the air. In just over an hour, the view from your table slowly shifts from twinkling northwest suburbs to flowing arterial interstates to close-ups of high-rise office life. As they say about the weather, "Don't like the view? Just wait five minutes, and it'll change."
The sensation of eating in a revolving restaurant is eerily compelling. Spindletop may be aimed at tourists, but the fact is, even the most jaded native rarely gets to see a living panorama of the Bayou City from deep inside its cityscape. Especially on a clear summer night, the experience can inspire an unexpected sense of urban wonder.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
As an architectural concept, the "revolving rooftop" restaurant is roughly 40 years old, with its heyday falling between the late '60s and early '70s. As American cities looked toward the future, skylines in San Antonio and Seattle sprouted dramatic towers and needles that would become visual trademarks. Not coincidentally, each housed a lounge or restaurant built on an immense turntable. And thanks to the tireless efforts of local tourist bureaus, the "eat and spin" experience became a '70s-era tourist imperative -- more for the view than for the food.
Houston jumped into the game in 1972, when the Hyatt Regency constructed its downtown outpost. The dramatically modern structure featured a 30-story open atrium, soaring glass elevators and Spindletop, the city's very own revolving restaurant. The Houston skyline was considerably less crowded then. Many contemporary skyscrapers (JP Morgan Chase Tower, Wells Fargo Plaza) hadn't yet sprung up, and the idea of a spinning restaurant 300 feet high boggled the imagination. Even at just 30 stories, Spindletop would provide spectacular views of a soon-to-boom Houston and its rapidly growing skyline. (The Beaumont contingency may have bristled at the aesthetically apt but historically co-opted name -- it's our oil field! -- but it wouldn't be the first time that commerce would win over factual accuracy.)
Thirty-two years later, the restaurant in the sky spins its diners around town just as it did during the peak of the oil boom. Two concentric rings of tables form a narrow galley-style dining room navigated by nimble staff. Renovated in 2000, the restaurant is decorated in a Mediterranean style, but the real ornaments, of course, are the big windows with the lights of the city on the other side.
A lot has happened in the restaurant world since the '70s, but the truth is, revolving restaurants don't really have to keep up with the times. After all, if a locale's primary appeal is its structure, then its kitchen becomes a secondary consideration. Most revolving restaurants feature run-of-the-mill banquet fare that plays second fiddle to the spinning scenery.
Spindletop's current chef, Jean Moysan, is trying to buck this trend with his somewhat contemporary take ("New American cuisine with a Pacific Rim flavor") on the usual hotel menu offerings. But Moysan is still operating within the hotel restaurant world, where innovation is fine, as long as the food's universally accessible. If you've gotta choose one, play to the side of the reassuring.
A quick scan of Spindletop's menu shows that Moysan's choices are designed for maximum appeal. Seafood-heavy appetizer offerings include a gulf shrimp martini that's a dolled-up version of the standard shrimp cocktail, curried mussels, and a duck broth with scallions. Entrées include several slightly tweaked but thoroughly familiar grilled dishes (ahi tuna, sirloin strip, seared scallops) alongside from-the-book standards (rack of lamb, wine-sauced steaks, lobster) that require little if any translation. It's a clever way to play the middle.
On the table, however, the limitations of the kitchen become apparent. On a recent visit, a summer salad described as sweet red and yellow tomatoes featured hard, tasteless slices of the savory fruit -- an avoidable gaffe during peak season. The one appetizer on the list that wasn't seafood-based, a chicken and mushroom beggar's purse, was flavorful, but the rice paper was steamed past the point of tenderness and well into the gummy stage.
The straightforward green salad and grilled shrimp starters fared considerably better. The "bouquet of baby greens" came in a lovingly tied packet of various sweet and bitter leaves, accompanied by a tasty cream dressing with a subtle sesame flavor. The shrimp, a bit on the overcooked side, was accompanied by two sauce options: a drizzle of brightly flavored cilantro pesto and a molasses-flavored pool of "sweet soy sauce." The flavors of the pesto complemented the shrimp (unfortunately, though, at the expense of the rosemary), while the soy brought a hint of sulfur and bitterness to the tongue.
The coriander pesto drizzle reappeared in the entrée course as a side sauce for crusted fillet of tender sea bass. Under a well-portioned layer of crushed peanuts and chopped green onion, the fish's flaky flesh was moist and succulent, without being mushy. The fish's soft texture and lack of sear marks made us wonder whether it had been steamed, but the waiter assured us that it had been grilled. Either way, it was a flavorful standout among the main courses.