"What's your favorite restaurant?" is the second question I get when I meet someone at a party, after they ask me what I do. I generally filibuster with a long and complicated yarn about visiting chefs from New York who were unimpressed by Houston's best restaurants but blown away by a barbecue shack in the Fifth Ward. The partygoer's eyes glaze over somewhere mid-story, and I am left alone.
This week, I hit on a new strategy. I've decided that from now on when I'm asked the inevitable question, I'm going to say my favorite restaurant is Segari's on Shepherd. Which is something of a cruel joke, since Segari's is impossible to find.
I asked a Houston Press staff writer to meet me there for dinner the other night. I even gave him the exact address. He drove around in circles for a while, then called my cell phone so I could "talk him in" using street names and landmarks.
1503 Shepherd, 713-880-2470
Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner hours: 5:15 p.m. until everybody leaves, Mondays through Fridays.
Cup of gumbo: $5.95
Crab salad: $9.95
Segari's is more like a speakeasy than a restaurant. It doesn't have a sign, nor is the street address displayed. There's no menu either. And if owner Sam Segari doesn't like your attitude, you'll find the wait for service eternal.
It's nowhere close to Houston's best restaurant. The food is unimaginative, the decor is plain, and the clientele is mostly geriatric. But I genuinely love the place, and you will too if you smoke -- or if you like eccentrics.
The first time I ate at Segari's, it was in an old house over on Durham a few blocks from its current location. There was a hand-lettered sign beside the front door that said, "If smoking bothers you, go eat somewhere else." The ramshackle building had a front room with a bar and two tables and a back room with four more tables. It resembled a clubhouse.
I liked the gumbo there so much, I nominated it for Best Gumbo in the 2002 Best of Houston issue. On that first visit, I also found the rib eye gristly and the crabmeat salad crusty from sitting too long in the fridge. But I was charmed by the restaurant's irascible proprietor, Sam Segari, and the decor, which glowed with a certain shabby je ne sais quoi. Unfortunately, the old Segari's burned down shortly after I praised the seafood soup.
When the fire marshal came to ask Sam Segari some questions about how the fire started, he quickly put to rest any suspicions of arson. "I didn't have a lick of insurance on the place," he assured the fire department.
Sam Segari is a tall, pot-bellied, white-haired raconteur who's been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years. His loyal following of ambulance chasers, wildcatters and chain smokers quickly tracked him down at the new location. It took me a little longer. I'd heard he'd moved to Shepherd and I kept looking, but it wasn't easy.
"What happened to your sign?" I asked Sam when I finally found him. As the head waiter, he visits every table.
"I'd just paid the city $600 for the sign permit at the old place," he said. "They wanted another $600 for a new sign. I said, 'Forget it.' Everybody who eats here already knows where it is." The new location seats only 38 people, and I suspect Sam Segari doesn't want any new customers -- they take too long to train.
"What'll you have?" he asked my dining companion and me on that first visit to the new place. Sam doesn't like to answer a lot of questions. Luckily, I remembered that he serves seafood salads, shrimp cocktail and gumbo for appetizers, and a rib-eye steak and some shrimp dishes for dinner. My cute blond companion got away with a little more questioning. She got him to recommend his favorite entrée, the jalapeño shrimp.
The dish was awful. The enormous shrimp were butterflied and set into hollowed-out jalapeño halves before being deep-fried. Which would've been fine, except that the kitchen added a thick blob of cream cheese between the pepper and the shrimp. We ended up peeling off the shrimp and eating them naked when Segari wasn't looking.
There were plenty of other things to eat, though. Instead of crab salad, this time we started off with a shrimp-and-crabmeat combo salad. Segari's is famous for its enormous shrimp and the biggest, fattest lump crabmeat pieces I've ever seen. They heap an obscene amount of this top-end seafood over a boring salad of iceberg and tomato slices, with blue cheese dressing on the side.
The blond shared the salad with me, then she got a bowl of gumbo for dinner. As noted in the 2002 Best of Houston issue, Segari's gumbo is spicy, murky, dark and loaded with seafood. It's still one of the best gumbos I've eaten in a Houston restaurant.
We had coconut pie for dessert. While we finished eating, Sam Segari sat at the nearby bar and took his off shoes. He played solitaire on a laptop computer while rubbing his feet.
The Houston Press staff writer who met me for dinner on my second visit to the new place is a die-hard smoker, so we asked for a table in the smoking section. The owner looked puzzled.
"This is a smoking establishment," reads a sign beside the front door at the new location. So I guess every table is a smoking table. And certainly the regulars know better than to complain about smoke at Segari's. After we sat down, the guy at the next table lit up a pipe. He was smoking a cherry-flavored Cavendish, if I'm not mistaken.
I smoked a pipe, once upon a time. I smoked cigars for a while, too. But I haven't smoked anything in the last ten years, and I can't say I love the smell anymore, especially when I'm eating. But I do love Segari's cussedness on the subject. Does he allow cigar smoking? I wondered.
"Yup," Sam replied.
How will the restaurant fare under the new smoking regulations, my companion wondered. "They haven't even written the law yet, so I'm not going to worry about it," Sam told him. "Why all the questions? You got your smoking table. And here's an ashtray," Sam said, whacking a black plastic model in front of us.
We ordered a couple of whiskeys, and my buddy lit up. Then Sam came over and said good-bye. "I'm going to leave you with her," he said, pointing at a lovely young brunette in a black sweater and blue jeans.
"His feet are bothering him, so I'm sending him home," the waitress told us as Sam left the building. Her name was Angela, and she told us she was Sam's daughter.
"How long have you worked here?" I asked.
"All my life," she said wearily. "I was born here."
The patient Angela explained that you could order shrimp sautéed, fried plain or fried with jalapeño and cream cheese. I ordered the plain fried shrimp with a side of onion rings. The huge shrimp were butterflied, deep-fried in a crumb batter and served with cocktail and tartar sauces. Five of them completely filled my plate.
"These aren't shrimp, these are sea monsters," I said, holding one aloft. Spread open and flattened in the frying process, they looked more like fish fillets than shrimp.
"We have one customer who calls them stingrays," Angela said with a laugh. While we ate, I admired the food on a table nearby.
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An older couple had ordered a shrimp cocktail and a crab cocktail with a side of onion rings. That was their whole dinner. But the shrimp were so big, they looked like little lobsters hanging out of the cocktail sauce, and what might have been mistaken for three scoops of vanilla ice cream overflowing from a parfait glass turned out to be the largest serving of jumbo lump crabmeat I have ever seen.
My companion got the rib eye, which was about an inch thick and served with sautéed vegetables. It was tasty, but just as gristly as I remembered. There are probably a hundred restaurants in Houston where you could get a better steak.
For dessert we had bread pudding and a brownie with vanilla ice cream, both served piping hot, and both terrific. My companion had a beer and a few more cigarettes with his brownie. And I had another whiskey with my bread pudding. We hung around drinking and jawing for a while. And then we got the bill, which was steep.
Uneven quality, high prices, clouds of cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke, and a surly waiter who doesn't take any crap -- it's a package of amenities that's unique to Segari's, my favorite Houston restaurant.