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"These napkins are a bit much," he says, inspecting his. Instead of the crisp white linen you'd expect, the napkins are cream-colored and over-printed with a red pattern that also appears in the flocked red wallpaper. The design features silhouettes of two naked women facing each other in various poses.
"Now that you mention it, they look a little like the chrome silhouettes of naked women you see on the mudflaps of 18-wheelers," I say, studying my own napkin.
The original Strip House in Greenwich Village, which opened four years ago, was designed by David Rockwell, who was then and is still the hottest restaurant designer in New York. The double entendre of the restaurant's name and the location in an old theater building in the Village inspired Rockwell to create a burlesque theme. The downtown Houston location carries on the live-nude-girl-gone-classy look. The banquettes are red leather. The ceiling is red. The sofas, carpets and throw pillows in the bar are red. Pretty much everything is red.
1200 McKinney St.
Houston, TX 77010
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Shrimp cocktail: $16
Double-cut New York strip steak: $70
Truffled creamed spinach: $8
Goose-fat potatoes: $8
Baked potato with caviar: $19
Lunch entrées: $14
Except for the dozens and dozens of photos on the restaurant's walls, which are black-and-white. They come from Studio Manasse, a Viennese photo studio of the 1920s and 1930s run by a Hungarian husband-and-wife team. The photographers attempted to capture the erotic spirit of the cinema and cabaret era in their dreamily retouched photographs of nude or partially clothed women. Some of the photos on the wall at the Strip House are spotlit, while others are displayed in backlit shadow boxes.
Together the ruby-red colors and nude photos create an ambience my late father would have described as "French whorehouse." Dad wasn't very sophisticated about interior design. In truth, I think the decor at the Strip House might be more accurately described as "ironic, retro-1950s French whorehouse."
Irony is what makes eating lunch at the Strip House different from eating lunch at Rick's Cabaret, one of my female lunchmates tells me on my third visit. Having deduced that my male friends liked the Strip House just fine, I decided to bring two female acquaintances for lunch to see what they thought of the place.
"My friends are going to be hanging out here all the time," a lesbian lawyer quips as we sit down amid the nudie photos. But by the middle of lunch, she admits she was just joking. If they were eating here at night by themselves, they would probably be stared at and made to feel uncomfortable, she says. It's obviously a male-oriented place, just like a strip club.
It's all tongue-in-cheek, of course, so men don't have to feel guilty about dining here, the other woman says. It's a lads'-night-out sort of place, where liberal men can go and thumb their noses at political correctness and yet not feel sleazy, she concludes.
"Why liberals?" I wonder.
"Because Republican men never go anywhere immoral," she says, giggling at her own funny.
"That must be why Houston has so few topless bars," I say.
Our lunch entrées are all $14, and they're all exceptional. I have grilled salmon over thinly sliced pieces of celery root cooked and sauced to resemble noodles. The lawyer gets sea scallops, which are wonderfully firm and nutty. They are served in an innovative succotash of edamame and corn. Our other tablemate has an open-faced French dip sandwich, which consists of lots of thin slices of prime rib over what appears to be sourdough French toast with melted Gruyère over the top, served au jus. We split an apple crisp spiked with Calvados for dessert.
Houston is a city that loves a good steak house. There is no doubt that the Strip House has got some of the best steaks in the city. And the sides are nothing short of spectacular. As for the naughty decor, well, that's going to require some extra effort.
Since the Strip House gang is originally from Greenwich Village, the heart of blue-state decadence, they may need some tips on how to survive here in the capital of the red states.
First thing they need to do is explain to our local television crusader, Marvin Zindler, that the Strip House isn't really a French whorehouse and that those naked pictures are actually art. Otherwise he's likely to close the place on live TV like he did the Chicken Ranch. Oh, and go easy on the Baptists. They don't drink much, but when they do, they tend to fall down a lot.
But if they can keep Marvin and the Baptists at bay, the Strip House ought to do a pretty good business in Houston. As you have probably already noticed, steak houses and titty bars are a few of our favorite things.