The recorded message was a little longer and more emotional than usual:
"Hello. You have reached Baich's Bar & Grille. With much regret and sadness, Baich's Bar & Grille will be closed after lunch on Monday, June 4, due to disruption of our business as a result of Metro's construction. We at Baich's would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to friends, family and customers for the support given over the years and especially in these difficult times. Thank you and I hope our paths will cross again. Susan Hill."
In the long term, light rail may be a very good idea for automobile-addicted Houstonians, but for now the construction process is rapidly becoming a disaster for restaurants and clubs along Main Street. Rather than proceeding in sections, the Metro project has torn up much of Main and Fannin along a 7.5-mile strip. That along with other road and sewer work in the area -- not to mention Enron's construction to build Houston's answer to the World Trade Center towers -- has choked off not only Main but also several streets parallel and perpendicular to it.
"We've been there since 1992. It took four months for [Metro] to close us down," Hill adds in a real-life interview. "Do you know how we found out about it? They pushed a piece of paper under our door The sign by West Gray says that Main from there to the Medical Center will be closed for the next three years Is there going to be any compensation? We have not been able to get an answer from Metro."
Baich's was located at 2016 Main, just south of the Pierce Elevated and across the street from the bus station. As such, it was about halfway between where light-rail construction began at Main and Bissonnet and the northern terminus at the Main Street bridge over Buffalo Bayou. Nearby, at 1919 Louisiana, Adrian's Restaurante y Cantina was also recently shuttered. A sign hung on the Spanish Colonial-style building read: "Restaurant closed. Equipment for Sale. Thanks Metro."
South of Baich's, the popular Fusion Cafe (3722 Main Street, 713-874-1116), a mid-price restaurant that occupies a corner lot at Alabama, has shortened its hours of operation. Head cook Kevin Kelleher reports that the cafe has curtailed evening hours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a result of the construction. "We've gone from completely full at 11:30 [a.m.] to now, today, we have three tables [occupied] in here," he says. "It's almost impossible to drive on Main." Houston's frequent rains add more barriers. After the downpour occasioned by Tropical Storm Allison, Kelleher reports that "people really can't get in here" with all the standing pools of water.
North of the Pierce Elevated, where the terrain changes from the leafy streets of Montrose and Binz to the hard-core urban expanse of downtown, puddles and mud may be harder to spot, but problems are being experienced by a variety of operators lured to Main Street by the promise of development.
At the chic Saba Blue Water Cafe (416 Main, 713-228-7222), executive chef Dylan Murray looked at the street on a Wednesday night and observed, "We're having a pretty good night, but overall business has dropped since Main Street got torn up. It's definitely going to be a waiting game to see who can outlast the construction." About half of Saba's tables were occupied, a much better percentage than other restaurants on the adjacent blocks.
On that same evening, Prague (402 Main Street, 713-223-2233) seemed to be pulling in a horde of teenagers hungry for a taste of Mitteleuropaische glam and glitz, but the recently opened Grasshopper/Red Lights disco (506 Main Street, 713-222-1442) in the next block, a reputedly seven-figure, postmodern decorator's fantasy, had a bouncer and a velvet rope hopefully stretched across the open door, which revealed about half a dozen people giving off the appearance of a crowd. Clubs, much more than restaurants, are weekend businesses, at least in Houston, a city that no one can as yet mistake for New York.
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Another new Main Street arrival, Century Diner (1001 Texas Avenue, 713-223-0602) has changed its weekday hours of operation, closing at 3 p.m. on Monday through Thursday. The diner is a project of Sharon Haynes and Arturo Boada, who also own the nearby Solero and Czar Bar (910 Prairie, 713-227-2665) in the charming 19th-century building off Market Square. David Davenport, general manager of Solero, confirmed, "We switched the hours a couple of weeks ago, about the time the construction began You have to have percentages to make a restaurant work, and they're not there on weekday nights right now."
Davenport further explained that "If you're paying double the rent [to be on or near Main Street], you're doing that for the drive-by [business]. If you tear up the street, there goes your drive-by." However, Davenport is not entirely anti-Metro. "When I was up in Dallas, DART came in, and it completely changed Oak Lawn," he said. "It was the coolest thing." He is optimistic for his business, saying that "our weekends here at Solero and for the club upstairs [the Czar Bar] are great and getting better Plus, we restaurateurs are a tough breed."
At Metro, vice president of communications and marketing Julie Gilbert confirmed that the light-rail project, which began in March, will finish "sometime in early 2004." The heaviest street construction, however, should be done by late summer 2002. Regarding Hill's question of compensation, Gilbert says, "If there are permanent impacts, Metro will study the situation. Other entities all over the region do construction the same way. While there is a period of disruption, construction otherwise improves access and value for properties along the route. People are happy with it after it's done."
In the meantime, there may be more casualties like Susan Hill before one train chugs into downtown. It gives new meaning to the term "run out on a rail."