Romance at Renata's
"Do you know how many agreements have been signed on these tables for millions of dollars?" Sam Hannoush, owner/manager of Renata's (2006 Lexington, 523-2428), asks, sweeping his hand across the elegantly decorated restaurant just before opening for dinner. "There's a lot of history here, and I respect that. I do."

And so do most of his regulars, who have made the charming, tucked-away eatery a safe haven. With a recent menu overhaul and ongoing redecoration, Hannoush hopes to reintroduce his restaurant to a wider audience -- people who may not have been there for years. Renata's intimate atmosphere is ideal for romance, so it's no surprise that's just how the whole thing began.

The year was 1973. A local architect fell hard for an Italian cocktail waitress named Renata, who worked on Westheimer. In best romance-novel form, he vowed to build her a restaurant of her own. Soon they'd converted a small three-bedroom house into a restaurant, where Renata waited tables, her mother cooked and he greeted guests. Business was good, and the pair added a banquet room and patio. But Renata's, like many Houston businesses, faced hard times in the '80s. According to Hannoush, the romance fizzled. The place was sold to a pair of investors in 1989, and Hannoush purchased it in 1991.

He's been slowly building back since then, and a few months ago, he and head chef Antonio Mandilla decided to change the menu, jettisoning many of the pasta dishes, with meatballs and sausage, to concentrate on unique interpretations of fish, steak and chicken.

The change has worked. On the night I went, our party greatly enjoyed an appetizer of fried ravioli in herb and sweet and sour sauce and the best lobster bisque -- or any bisque -- I've ever tasted. Our entrees also included delectable examples of New York steak, snapper avocado and jalapeno pasta.

But regulars come to Renata's for something far more than a good meal. "When I come in the door, I'm greeted like family," says customer and local attorney Bill Gates.

"Out of every three tables, we know two by name. I like to give a lot of personal touch. You've got to treat them as if they're coming into your own house," Hannoush says.

Hannoush says he's never actually met his restaurant's namesake, but hears that she is living peaceably in Florida. It's been many years since she even set foot in the place -- perhaps she'll be another customer Sam Hannoush can bring back and greet by name at the door.

-- Bob Ruggiero


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