The Houston Valet Conundrum

One of the most hated aspects of dining in Houston

Scott Sulma, general manager of Tony's, told me that they don't have much of an option but to hire valet services for the restaurant because they literally don't have a lot.

"We have the third story of the parking garage next door," he explains. "We can't ask our guests – especially the older ones – to walk all that way."

After I started to understand the need for valet in Houston, I began to defend it ever so slightly to people who complained.

"But don't you know about El Real?" they'd ask. El Real's owner Robb Walsh has a documented hatred of valet from when he was the restaurant critic here at the Houston Press, but as soon as he opened his own restaurant, a valet stand popped up out front. A few people jumped to Walsh's defense when his stance on valet was questioned.

"Not El Real's fault that city parking code forces them to use valet to satisfy parking requirements," one person wrote to me on Twitter.

"A lot of places who 'shouldn't have to have' valet have no other option," wrote another.

I hadn't realized before that there could be some sort of city mandate that forces restaurants to hire valets. That, of course, would help explain its prevalence. I sat down with my computer and spent a long morning perusing municode, the city's online record of ordinances, for anything that explicitly states that valet is required under certain circumstances.

And I found nothing.

The city has a number of ordinances dealing with valet permitting but nothing about a restaurant being compelled to hire a valet company for whatever reason. There are rules that valet companies have to comply with, but only if they pick up and drop off in an area that is a city right-of-way, as in the valet zone in front of Reef.

Feeling conquered by municode, I got in touch with the media liaison for the Parking Management Division (among other things), Chris Newport, and asked him to explain the city's involvement with valet parking in layman's terms. Here's what he told me:

"The city does not require anyone to have valet."

What the city does stipulate, it seems, is that a business must provide so many off-street parking spaces dependent upon the square-footage of the business. As the ordinances are amended, older businesses are grandfathered in and may not face as strict of rules, but there is a ratio between square feet and parking spaces that must be met.

"But," Newport explains, "you are allowed to meet that ratio in a number of different ways. You get a credit, so to speak, if you provide valet because it lowers the number of spaces you need because valets can double stack and triple stack cars and get more vehicles in a valet lot. But you can also meet that requirement by having a garage or leasing a lot or buying a lot."

So when restaurateurs say that they have valet because they have no other choice, it's only half-true. Perhaps, they cannot afford to buy up a nearby space and turn it into a lot or pay a neighboring business to use its space. In this case, a restaurant would have to employ a valet service to meet the appropriate ratio between square footage and parking spaces. Is it mandated? Not exactly. Is it the only option? Pretty much.

Some restaurants have chosen to do what Fleming's does, which is provide parking spaces in the front for guests to park themselves but also provide valet parking in a lot in the back. The valet drivers can use only the back lot, and diners can use only the front. If the front fills up, you have to valet, but it's nice to know the option exists.

I'm not sure why more restaurants don't give you the option of whether to valet or not. Perhaps they feel the option is inherent in the fact that most places have at least a few street parking spaces if you're willing to walk a bit.

Ian Rosenberg of Mongoose Versus Cobra and 13 Celsius is very involved in developing Midtown, and though he tries to provide as much free parking to his patrons as possible, he thinks it's a shame that Houstonians are so averse to traveling by foot.

"Go to any great urban city, and you walk anywhere," Rosenberg says. "It's healthy for you. We're trying to create a pedestrian neighborhood, but we live in a city that is dominated by a car. There are definitely more things the city could do like create parking management districts."

For now, if you don't want to valet, parking and walking or taking the light rail or a bus are your best options. With Houston continuing to grow and the restaurant scene continuing to thrive, it's not likely that the number of valet stands in the city will decrease anytime soon.

Talking to restaurateurs has helped me understand the valet problem a bit more clearly, but I do still think that maintaining that valet is a city requirement is a bit of a half-truth perpetuated by people in the business who can't or won't pay to secure more parking for customers.

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I was once visiting someone at the Shits Carlton in Houston.  When I walked outside & observed all of the lazy fucks waiting to have their cars parked, I was stunned.  The line extended out the front door and around the block.  It reminded me of drive-through lines for donuts. 

Most of the fucks in the automobiles could use a long fast-paced walk to shed some pounds.  Of course, we don't want these elitist pigs exposed to sunlight.  We have enough raisin-faced fuckers in Houston.