Attack of the Killer Developers

Houston's civic ethos is change. Change for the better, it is hoped, but change above all. "New and improved" is not an advertising cliché for Houston's leadership -- it is a mantra.

Houston began in the area around Market Square because Allen's Landing, down the slope on Buffalo Bayou, was the farthest point a steamboat could go up the bayou and still have room to turn around. The 1845 structure on Market Square housing La Carafe is the oldest building in the city. The city grew south from there, toward what would become Hermann Park. The large, mostly Greek Revival homes that occupied that neighborhood are, with a handful of exceptions, gone. One of the few neighborhoods to survive from the 19th century into the late 20th was Houston's old Fourth Ward. Prior to becoming a part of Houston, the Fourth Ward was a separate community called Freedmen's Town, where many African-Americans settled after the Civil War. Following a long battle among developers, residents and preservationists, the developers won -- in true Houston fashion. A bit of Freedmen's Town still remains, with a historical marker announcing it, but the greater part is being turned into a new residential and retail neighborhood rechristened Midtown.

Where listing wooden shotgun houses recently stood, the very architectural embodiment of the Jim Crow South, new design-statement, mixed-use buildings are going up. A recent four-story structure at the southwest corner of Bagby and Gray streets has been completed, and the owners are offering residential rental units from $800 to $3,000 a month. The ground floor at the corner of the block-size building now houses a restaurant, Farrago [318 West Gray, (713)523-6404], which has been open for business since June 1. The restaurant's interior is a handsome mix of stained concrete flooring, ocher-colored walls and blond wood furnishings accented with stainless-steel sconces and other carefully designed details. The indoor space is divided into a bar and dining room for smokers and talkers, and a separate dining-only room for nonsmokers and those wanting a quieter setting. The building's landscaped courtyard has a fenced-off area for diners who wish to eat outdoors.

Farrago is owned and operated by Chuck Russell and Todd Stevens, two Conroe natives who met in high school and have worked in the restaurant business separately in a number of ventures. Russell most recently managed Solero [910 Prairie, (713)227-2665], in the heart of the downtown restaurant and club district. Prior to that, both he and Stevens worked for Dallasite Shannon Wynne's 8.0 nightspot in the Shepherd Plaza triangle. Why did they strike out on their own for the first time in this new neighborhood?

Russell is quick to provide an explanation.

"The downtown restaurant scene is rapidly becoming overcrowded. There is going to be some attrition soon. Also, rents downtown are hitting the $30-per-square-foot level for ground-floor commercial space….On the other hand, Houstonians go out an average of 4.5 times a week; that's the highest average in the nation. Because of that, only New York City has a higher restaurant-per-capita ratio than Houston. Houston ranks something like 17th or 18th in PPA [per person average or, as it's also known, the average cover]."

Going on to show the menu, Russell continues, "We wanted a place where neighborhood residents would feel comfortable going repeatedly. When going out, there is often a discussion about who feels like eating what -- whether it's Chinese or Italian and so on. Our menu offers dishes from all over. There is a curried mussels appetizer ($10), a Jamaican 'Jerked Chicken Wings' appetizer ($6), pizzas, a posole entrée ($7), a Middle Eastern braised lamb shank ($12)."

Thus the name Farrago, which at first strikes the approaching customer as a bit self-deprecating (or at least the customer who rolls into bed with a verse of Latin and rises with a verse of Greek, as poet Robert Service once phrased it). The Latin term farrago means, simply, "mixed fodder for cattle." It has taken on the literary meaning of "mixture" or "hodgepodge," but it still retains a somewhat pejorative sense among literary types. Leave it to the restaurant industry to move the language along in a new and sunnier direction.

Russell observes that their hunch that new Midtown tenants appreciate a neighborhood place seems to be playing out. "I have seen one customer eat here three evenings in a row," he reveals. Other operators seem to agree. The neighborhood, which once had a single restaurant, that venerable temple of soul food This Is It [207 West Gray, (713)659-1608], now has several. There is a spiffy contemporary take on a uniquely Texan institution, the icehouse, in the form of the Midtown Station [2306 Brazos, (713)522-1041]. Two blocks away, in a strip center grandly named The Plazas at Midtown, diners can choose between the very proper, white-tablecloth Charivari European Specialty Restaurant [2521 Bagby, (713)521-7231] and the studied casualness of the Dog House Tavern [2517 Bagby, (713)520-1118]. For breakfast, the same strip has the Midtown Bagel & Coffee Co. [2507 Bagby, (713)522-0522].

Other restaurants are preparing to open. A block east of The Plazas at Midtown, a Vietnamese strip center whose American name is Liberty Square [2905 Travis] is bedecked with signs declaring "Fast food coming soon" at one end of the strip and "Starz Café coming soon" at the other. This week, work is scheduled to begin on Café Botticelli [306 West Gray], just down the sidewalk from Farrago. Conceived by Anthony Russo, who operates four New York Pizzerias in Houston, as "an Italian espresso bar, like you would find in Florence with coffee, a full bar, desserts, salads, appetizers, panini, with nice outside seating," the spot will be the incubator for a proposed chain. Russo says the opening is slated for mid-September.

Freedmen's Town, we hardly knew ye.


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