"Shepherd Plaza is kind of an interesting gig at the moment," says club launcher John Finlay about the new drama circulating around the once-flourishing near-southwest nightlife mecca. It looks like the strip that used to house such booming spots as Voodoo Lounge (which later became Cafe Picasso) and 8.0 is trying to regain the clubbing composition it had in the early- to mid-'90s.
It isn't going to be easy. The parking lots that were once bumper to bumper with sports cars are now often two-thirds empty. The karaoke/video tavern Guava Lamp (2159 Portsmouth) is the center's only resonant nightspot, unless you count Amy's Ice Creams & Coffees on Farnham. More night crawlers venture out of the plaza proper and hang at nearby watering holes, like the Davenport Lounge (2117 Richmond Avenue) and McElroy's Pub (3607 South Sandman), next-door neighbors in the Sandman Building.
But recently the beleaguered plaza has attracted some new suitors. Finlay, who you may remember tried and failed to establish a Galleria-area nightlife scene earlier this year with his Current Nightclub/Citrus Room combo (see "Treacherous Waters," July 19), has tried to launch another club, this time in the former Voodoo Lounge/Club Picasso space. "I made two proposals to two different groups of investors," says Finlay. But when it came time to show the investors the property -- a week after the Allison flood severely damaged most of the vacant spaces on the plaza -- the money men weren't biting. As Finlay recalls, "One group was scared off, and the other group didn't think Shepherd was a good place to open a club."
While they aren't the trendiest Houston nighttime brand names, two time-tested venues will be reincarnated on the plaza. The folks who owned the demolished Ale House are putting the finishing touches on the Stag's Head Pub (2128 Portsmouth), scheduled to open on November 19. "We're gonna be just a nice upscale pub," says general manager Angela Jenkins. She says the owners decided to open up a Shepherd Plaza spot long before The Ale House closed in June. "This is a whole new establishment," insists Jenkins. "It has nothing to do with The Ale House." And musician/club owner Dennis Marshman, who ran the low-rent-and-proud-of-it Boat Yard on Morningside before it was bulldozed, has leased out the Live Bait space (3743 Greenbriar). He's calling this version the Boat House. "This is really gonna be a musician's bar," says Marshman, referring to the front stage and analog recording system that could be used for impromptu recording sessions.
But as these hangouts begin to stake their claim at Shepherd, one longtime nightspot has bowed out. Cabo was one of the last remnants of Shepherd Plaza's prime. After closing its doors in August, the "Mix-Mex" bar and grill moved down to the Richmond Strip -- to the same building that used to house the Billy Blues Bar & Grill (6025 Richmond), in fact. Jeff Gardner, manager of the downtown Cabo (419 Travis), says that the prime location was something Cabo management couldn't say no to. "We had a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and we couldn't pass it up," says Gardner. Although Gardner insists the Cabo move is an opportunity to branch out, he also notes that many other bars and clubs have faltered on Shepherd Plaza because of its proximity of the St. Germain Foundation, a New Age church on the corner of Portsmouth and Greenbriar. According to Texas law, any establishment that sells liquor must be 300 feet away from a place of worship, unless the bar is operating with an existing liquor license from a previous tenant. "That's what killed the strip!" exclaims Gardner. (The St. Germain Foundation couldn't be reached for comment.)
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Despite the temple's pub-closing force field, Shepherd Plaza's nightlife may be on its way to capturing at least some of its 1995 glory. We should thank people like Marshman, Jenkins and Finlay. When you think about it, anyplace that has a yoga center, a HealthSouth, a Tae-Bo studio and a Wherehouse Music in the immediate vicinity needs all the help it can get.
"What do any of these things have in common?" asks Finlay rhetorically. "It's a weird-ass mix."
Oh, what treasures are in store for you downtown on a Wednesday night! For starters, Tonic (310 Main Street) has recently commenced "Celebrity Bartender Night." Every Wednesday, a semi-recognizable figure or two in the Houston scene -- like, for example, Southern Backtones band members Hank Shyma and Michael Foster or Axcess Magazine writer Shelly Mason -- comes by the club's upstairs Tryst bar and assists in serving up hooch for the crowd. As host and "startender" Ralph Ragar says: He and the owners "always thought it would be funny if we have our friends bartend and whatnot -- you know, taking care of the mood right here and enjoy the bartending experience." Meanwhile, Paesanos Lounge (213 Milam) has set up a night for downtown workers called -- ready for this? -- "Super Pussy Wednesdays." But, as host and organizer Ronald Love is quick to point out, it's not what you think. Love just thought the, shall we say, enticing name, borrowed from a club in Japan, would be a cool moniker for an evening where nine-to-fivers can kick back after a hard day's work. "You don't want 'super pussy' at a club," claims Love. "I mean, you wanna go out and have a good time." Note to Love: Some guys may feel the only way to go out and have a good time is if "super pussy" is at a club.