Giving Last Concert Cafe One Last Chance
Is Last Concert Cafe "Real" and I just don't understand it?
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Although I live within walking distance of Last Concert Cafe, I've avoided it like that creepy quasi-homeless dude on my street who calls me "Ladybug" since I first moved into the Warehouse District this past summer. Make no mistake: I love my eclectic, colorful neighborhood and its unpredictable nature.
I love the parties thrown at the House of Creeps and the Ballistics' Skate House that last late into the evenings. I love walking my dog at night to the sounds of Bang Bangz or Venomous Maximus rehearsing in nearby studio spaces. I love the juxtaposition of Oxheart -- one of the classiest, most startlingly mature restaurants in Houston -- next door to a tattoo studio decorated with Santa Muertes. I love the white-bearded gentlemen whom we all call Santa Claus, who builds fires in front of his loft on cool evenings and invites passersby to sit and have a drink with him. I love the yearly Art Crawl -- which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past November -- and I love the sight of the classic Houston Studios neon sign lit up against the downtown skyline each night.
But I don't love Last Concert Cafe. The people who invade the Warehouse District to attend Art Crawl or a CD release party at the Ballistics' Skate House or dine at Oxheart or watch a punk show at the House of Creeps are considerate. The people who come out to the shows that Last Concert Cafe throws most nights of the week are not.
I feel like a NIMBY-pamby whiner whenever I see them urinating in the streets or stumbling around with a joint in hand or toting hula hoops from their car to whatever bizarre act Last Concert has booked that night. I hate that I'm the person yelling at random cars to "slow down!" as they careen through the narrow streets, or threatening to call the tow company if they don't stop blocking the entrance to our parking lot at home.
Between the motley crew of nightly patrons and the last encounter I had with Last Concert Cafe's food -- which I remembered as being decidedly average -- I've had little inclination to eat there despite the fact that I constantly bemoan our lack of a "real" neighborhood cafe and despite the fact that I can throw a shoe at it from my front door.
I felt a pang of guilt while walking my dog last week that I'd been so hateful about Last Concert Cafe, though. The restaurant has been in its rickety little red-and-white building since 1949, amazingly spared from the wrecking ball when the East Freeway was built through here in the 1960s.
Its patrons absolutely adore the place, and the fact that you still have to knock on its cherry-red front door to gain admittance. They love the feral cat-infested courtyard and the wooden stage out back that hosts jam bands and drum circles. The restaurant is even featured in a Larry McMurtry book you may remember: Terms of Endearment. So why haven't I been able to find the place endearing?
I decided right then and there to head to Last Concert for dinner, toting along a friend who's lived in the area much longer than I. He -- like many of my neighbors -- rarely eats there, but knocked on the front door like an old pro.
The tacos at Last Concert taste like Family Taco Night when I was kid in the 1980s. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)
"That bartender has been here forever," my friend noted as we settled into the very same booth I'd occupied last time I'd eaten here, on a first date more than a decade ago. A watery bowl of overly-garlicky salsa accompanied some standard tortilla chips within minutes of us being seated, but our friendly waitress was so genuine and warm that I could see why people wouldn't care so much about the food.
Most of the dishes on the menu are named after longtime patrons, several of whom were already decamped inside the restaurant at 5 p.m. They gathered near the time-worn bar under gaudy Christmas Lights and watched the evening news together as if Last Concert Cafe were their own living room. One man sported fuzzy gray slippers on feet that dangled off a bar stool.
We ordered enchiladas and tacos -- mine vegan, my friend's cheese -- and sat back to wait in the pleasantly small, pleasantly knick-knack-laden dining room. On one wall, I spotted a Houston Press Best of Houston® award so faded I couldn't make out the year. It reminds me of the old Pig Stand, another restaurant which also features prominently in the film version of Terms of Endearment. Last Concert is time-worn and comfortable, noble in its dated kitschiness that's a testament to its longevity.
As it was 10 years ago, the food was nothing to write home about. My enchiladas were very dry although the various vegetables inside were well-cooked. My friend's enchiladas were covered in a dull chile gravy that dampened the nicely gooey cheese, although we both agreed that there was no fault to be found with a bowl of classic Tex-Mex queso (which we dumped all over our rice and beans like middle schoolers).
As we left that evening, I thought of the Skin Horse's opening speech from the seminal childhood book The Velveteen Rabbit.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people that don't understand.
Perhaps I'm just one of those people who doesn't understand, I mused to myself later that night, watching as a friend's band unloaded equipment from an SUV into the House of Creeps -- cattycorner from Last Concert -- for a show that would mark the first leg of their tour. Last Concert Cafe is beloved and Real to its fans, and that's all that matters.
A few seconds later, one of those fans came barreling down the street and tore the door clean off the band's SUV with a thud and a crunch, narrowly avoiding the astonished drummer who was standing inches away. The fan stumbled out of his car and berated the drummer for having his door open -- while parked on the side of the street -- before reluctantly agreeing to provide his insurance information. As he attempted to steer his own car away from the wreck, he hit another object -- this time, a ragged stump near the entrance to my parking lot -- and cursed loudly into the night as he backed his car off the gnarled wood.
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