In Bill Sadler's mind, his restaurants run together. Was it at the River Cafe or Cafe Noche where Ntozake Shange wrote parts of a novel? Was it at Noche or the Moose Cafe where Al Reinert and Bill Broyles polished the dialogue for Apollo 13? Was it the Blue Agave that Dennis Hopper dropped into? And what about Cloris Leachman? Sadler shrugs and grins. He remembers the jokes and the stories and the names worth dropping, but the restaurants -- his own restaurants -- have faded to the background, stage sets for the cast he assembled. "My crowd," he calls them, the artists and writers, lawyers and politicos, who followed him from place to place, knocking back drinks and exchanging quips about the Issues of the Day, no matter what day it happened to be. Sadler describes the atmosphere with a bright little bar-perfect quip: "We killed many a brain cell in pursuit of intellectualism." He laughs, the way that, in his bars, he was always laughing.
He opened his first restaurant, the River Cafe, for the worst of reasons: He'd always built his social life around restaurants and liked the idea of running one, something sophisticated, like the places he'd loved in San Francisco. It was 1982, and the oil bust had just killed his crating and shipping company. He had no excuse for being naive, for not noticing the economy's trouble, for not realizing that opening a restaurant is the least likely of business propositions.
But at first, he succeeded anyway. His people came in droves: the chattering class, his old Montrose drinking buddies, the demi-celebrities he naturally gravitates toward. He was known as a soft touch for artists and writers in need of a drink, or for left-wing groups in need of a party. He shook hands, remembered names and tried to make sure that the funny, smart ones came back. "If you gotta hang out at the bar all night long," he says, "you damn sure want somebody interesting to talk to."
Artist Lucas Johnson came with his friend Dick Wray. Mayor Kathy Whitmire showed up with her agenda director, Clarence West. A weekly politics-and-media bull session jelled around the Houston Press's Tim Fleck, the Houston Business Journal's Doug Miller and UH's ubiquitous analyst Dick Murray. And always, there was Sadler, schmoozing and boozing and generally making his bar feel like the center of the universe, the liveliest party in town. Somebody in the crowd quipped that he was Houston's version of Rick Blaine: Sooner or later, everybody ended up at Sadler's.
After about a year and a half, the recession set in for good, and the River suffered like every other place. The crowd thinned to the hard core; the party died down. Sadler had always worked 18-hour days, but now he worked them unsure whether the River would survive. The uncertainty wore him out. In '89, after the economy and the restaurant had righted themselves, he sold the place and announced he was leaving the business.
"I wanted to work with my hands instead of with people," he explains. It comes off as a joke, another little piece of bar banter: Bill Sadler, life of the party, wanted to retreat from humanity! But free of the restaurant business, he had time to get married. And for the next couple of years, he ran a woodworking shop, driving to Mexico with Lucas Johnson to buy carved panels that he turned into doors. Nice doors, he says. I made some nice doors.
But by '92, he was hanging some of those doors in his new restaurant, Cafe Noche. The River was Southwestern, and Noche was Mexican, but the bar crowd hardly noticed the difference. They were Sadler's people, and he was back. They joked that, driving down Montrose, you could feel him magnetically pulling you into the bar.
By '96, Sadler was getting restless, and he opened the Moose Cafe. He'd been spending time in Canada and wanted to salute the Pacific Northwest, to serve salmon, shrimp cooked on a cedar plank, stuff like that. The bar did well -- Sadler's bars always did well -- but this time around, the restaurant didn't catch fire. Competition had grown fierce, with ambitious new restaurants opening practically every week. In '82, the River had been the only serious restaurant to open in Montrose, and its hot-new-place glow lingered nearly a year and a half. The Moose got maybe a month.
The honeymoon period was too short to gloss over the place's problems. The concept was too highbrow, Sadler says; the decor was too spare for Houston, where less has never been more, and he had the wrong person in the kitchen. (Chef Valerie Rovira later surfaced at Cafe Beignet.)
Sadler felt he was stretched too thin, running back and forth between his two restaurants, and in '97, he sold Cafe Noche to its chef, Alan Mallet. But at the Moose, Sadler was still the first in and last out, still closing down the bar, going home in the wee hours and leaving for work not much later. His wife divorced him, and Sadler turned that, too, into a bar joke: "I got excommunicated from West University."
He closed the Moose last year and immediately converted the building into a new venture, the Blue Agave. This time, he had a partner, Charlie Watkins, the well-regarded chef from Sierra who just happened to live next to Sadler's building. And this time, the restaurant's cuisine was a sure thing: Mexican food. The reviews were mixed, but the reviews didn't matter. The parking lot was full, even on weekday nights.
And Sadler's crowd was, more or less, the same as it ever was: a little older, maybe; more journalists, fewer artists; but still smart, still lively, still urban; still his friends, the people he wanted to hang out with. Regulars hardly noticed the difference. They called the latest incarnation "the Blue Moose."
Early this spring, Sadler sold his share of the Agave to Charlie Watkins and his brother Tarry. Lucas Johnson -- one of the many regulars Sadler counts as a friend -- was at his country place in Rockport when Sadler broke the news. Sadler said he'd never have to go back in that building again, that he'd never have to shake another hand. He was going to get his own house in Rockport and go fishing.
The surprising thing wasn't that Sadler was moving on. He'd always been restless, and he'd always moved on; starting new places was the part he liked best, the part when the risks were highest. The surprising thing was that he was once again leaving the restaurant business. At 52 -- "and still pretty," as he puts it -- he doesn't seem remotely ready for a quiet life of retirement.
All of his friends, he says, he met at bars and restaurants. He's not at the Blue Agave every night anymore, but he is there whenever he's in town, two or three nights a week, still shaking hands, remembering names, dispensing the latest jokes. He still talks constantly on his cell phone. He still wears the watch with the Blue Agave face.
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The barflies are convinced that really, he's planning a new place. When he's around, they pepper him with suggestions -- downtown! a political theme! -- and he teases them with tantalizing hints, things like, "If I ever open another restaurant, it'll be with Charlie Watkins." If? they ask. If?
If, he says. If. He describes how tired he was of the business, sick of doing things for the 200th time. He describes his adventures pursuing redfish in his kayak and talks about how much he enjoys spending time with his nieces. He says to tell people that he's writing a book -- that'll scare 'em. He says he's working on secret projects.
He says all of this, of course, right there in the bar. The place where all his friends still gather. The place he says he's through with.
E-mail Lisa Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.