The Great Flood of Ought-One may have done a couple billion dollars' worth of damage, but it's remarkable how little permanent harm it did to Houston's restaurant scene. During the flood, restaurants that normally do business between, say, midnight and sunrise mostly shut down, such as Century Diner (1001 Texas Avenue, 713-223-0602). The all-night diner category, however, is not a major part of the local hospitality scene. A couple of miles south in Montrose, Katz's (motto: "Never Kloses"; 616 Westheimer, 713-521-3838), a Sun Belt paean to the cuisine of the Borscht Belt, never in fact closed during the deluge.
A few establishments that usually close on Friday evenings became de facto all-night restaurants. That was the case at Café Rabelais (2462 Bolsover, 713-526-6841) in the Rice Village on June 8. With its lights, the little French eatery attracted a few bibulous nightcrawlers late on Friday. When the water began to rise, first into the parking lot, then to the curb in front of the door, and then a bit higher, customers and staff settled in for an all-night session of chatting, watching dark shapes stagger through the drowned streets, and sipping. By the dawn's early light, the staff prepared coffee and pastries, gratis, for the involuntary customers before sending them into the receding waters.
For restaurants that did take on water, the cleanup time was remarkably brief. The venerable -- at least by Houston standards -- Rainbow Lodge (1 Birdsall, 713-861-8666) sits just above Buffalo Bayou across from the stately homes in River Oaks. It could be expected to take on water, as it has flooded several times in the past. While the bayou did come to visit the restaurant's interior, the Lodge was back in business after a week, opening for the Father's Day crowd on June 17. Many other restaurants were back up even sooner.
The most significant casualty of the Great Gathering of the Waters seems to have been Dish (2300 Westheimer). The restaurant, owned by the team of Benjy Levit and Martin Berson, who also own the well-regarded benjy's (2424 Dunstan, 713-522-7602), is closed for the present. Reached at benjy's, Berson reports that they had "significant flood damage."
That Friday night, the staff closed down the restaurant and left around midnight. "At that time, it was not flooded, and as the intersection nearby [Westheimer and South Shepherd] had been one of the worst-flooded places in the city the preceding Tuesday, we thought we were safe," Berson says. Indeed, that intersection had been the location for several hours' worth of live reports by Channel 2's Dominique Sachse during the storm on June 5. That, however, may have had more to do with the fact that Sachse's SUV tanked there than with the spot's status as Most Threatening Intersection in the Big H.
Returning on Saturday morning, Berson reports, "We had four inches of water across the floors. The apartment building next door to us had their basement completely flooded. It also seems that the sewage lines backed up and poured water into the building. There was also water, which seems to have come through the roof and ceiling. We didn't have flood insurance, so we have to sort things out." Then he adds: "No one was hurt; no one lost any personal possessions. So from that standpoint, we were lucky."
The main casualties seem to have been the elegant ebony-stained wood floors in the dining rooms. "We could have pulled up the wood and just gone with the concrete floors underneath, but we decided that it would not be the same, that it would become more noisy. We didn't want to reopen with anything less than 100 percent repair of the damage. We have been given an estimate of two to 12 weeks to repair Dish, with an eight- to ten-week repair time being the most realistic."
The restaurant, which had changed its cooking style from refined comfort foods to Asian-American fusion cuisine, was finally experiencing a turnaround at the time of the flood (see "Architecture of a Menu," March 22). According to Berson, "Things were really going well. The timing was awful."
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Having two restaurants appears to be fortunate for Levit and Berson -- not to mention their staff.
First, room was found at benjy's for much of the unexpectedly idle crew at Dish. "We moved ten people, about 40 percent of our staff, down to benjy's in the Village. The sous-chef, two waiters -- and good waiters are hard to find in Houston -- a couple of bartenders, the full-time manager, a host and some others. To give them work, we have opened for brunch on Saturdays. Our Sunday brunches have been very successful, so that was an easy decision. We are also now open on Mondays, where before we were closed. Those changes are permanent."
Second, the styles are compatible, since "benjy's is an American restaurant with Asian influences, while Dish is Asian fusion," says Berson. "So it was not that difficult for the new staff to adapt."
If the repair project encounters difficulties for any reason, Berson point out, they own the building. "If we get an offer in the interim, we may sell it, we may lease it."