Spend enough time in upscale bars, and someone will eventually mention Beau Theriot's name. Just about every time you hear it, it will be said with a certain amount of reverence.
It's a little weird, really. Theriot is like River Oaks's version of Keyser Söze, except instead of building and running an unimpeachable organized-crime ring, he builds and runs bars and clubs and restaurants. And instead of murdering people or pretending to have cerebral palsy, he doesn't.
He's not entirely like Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects, we suppose.
Anyway, the native Texan is the owner of 88 Keys (2736 Virginia), the super-impressive new section of the Brownstone complex. The early-evening piano bar — it never opens earlier than 5 p.m. or closes later than 11 p.m. — is connected to the equally posh, one-year-old Red Room (2736 Virginia).
Theriot owns that, too. Owning things is something he's kind of good at.
"He owns just about this whole block," laughs Zachary Webb, 88 Keys's cherub-faced manager. Webb is standing on the pleasant patio Red Room and 88 share, wagging his finger back and forth for effect.
"Have you heard of The Oasis in Austin? He owns that, too."
In fact, we have never been to The Oasis, as we typically try to avoid Austin with the same vigorous dedication that Ke$ha tries to avoid tact and good taste. But we needn't visit to surmise at least one thing: It's probably an exceptional place, especially if it's anything like 88 Keys.
Not even two months old, 88 should still be in the "Settling into Itself" phase of its life cycle. However, Theriot leaned on his own eclectic tastes to fill the space with all sorts of expensive things, which helps make the room feel almost completely matured.
Various modes of antique seating, abstract paintings and countless other costly knickknacks are strewn about. What could have, or should have, been a train wreck of mismatched colors and eras effectively forms a unique, classy space that is interesting without being kitschy.
The crowd, mostly established River Oaks folks, has been seduced thus far. Weekend nights, expect to wait in line.
But what really gives 88 Keys its immediate charm, even more than the weathered interior brick and rustic ceiling, is its live music. Adjacent to the bar sits a Yamaha baby grand piano, behind which will sit either Greg Giacona or Theresa Behenna, real actual pianists who play real actual music.
On any given night you will be in the company of a genuinely talented musician. Either Giacona or Behenna can play just about any request you can throw at them. However, there is a very real possibility they will ask you which classical piano song you'd like to hear.
Come unprepared and you could end up saying something moronic like, "Do you know that one song they play at the beginning of the first Jackass movie that goes like, 'Dah, dah, dah...'?" because you don't know the name of anything 94.5 FM doesn't play.
"Actually, I do a lot of jazz and blues and pop, too," says Giacona. "People that come to 88 Keys, that seek it out, seem to know good music. You'd be surprised at what they request. But I do Elton John, Billy Joel...it's what you like."
Further expansion is already in Brownstone's forecast. Plans for a proper dining experience, possibly Mediterranean or Italian, are being worked out. A separate back patio for the new restaurant is all but complete.
The most obvious comparison to draw here would be to the unquestionably fun party piano bar, Howl at the Moon (612 Hadley) — both prominently feature pianos, and both opened to large crowds and general acclaim. But that's incorrect.
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88 Keys is to Howl at the Moon as a family heirloom is to costume jewelry, what Nas is to the New Boyz, what Madden 2011 is to Blitz. Or, fittingly, what Keyser Söze is to Verbal Kint.
This week's Last Call section has less to do with actual nightlife and more to do with hat-tipping someone that we've grown to admire greatly from afar. Charlie Hardwick, known more prominently as Uncle Charlie, is a Houston artist whose work you have likely seen on any number of concert posters (or even as the cover of this here paper). What's fascinating about him — or part of the reason he's fascinating, anyway — is that he has a vision impairment. His eyes work, but only on what he is focusing on; everything else surrounding the subject piece is blurred. The "Charlie Hardwick: What I See" exhibition, his artistic representation of this impairment, opened at Sig's Lagoon (3622-E Main) this past weekend and will remain through January. You should absolutely go see it. Respect, folks.