Sempers Fugit

One of southwest Houston's strangest supper clubs closed at the end of '98, and we almost missed the nonevent entirely. Sempers [formerly at 2727 Crossview] always suffered from a strange form of schizophrenia: A respected, big-bucks chef struggled every night upstairs with an industrial-strength disco din downstairs. Sempers was a pasha's palace, whose owner lavished at least $4 million on the two-story property -- including a single gold-leafed column valued at $60,000 and $300,000 worth of Brobdingnagian porch furniture -- but begrudged a single dime for a sign to draw Westheimer traffic.

Still, Houstonians can be a greatly tolerant bunch and have overlooked greater eccentricities in the name of opulence. What too many apparently could not forgive were the double indignities of $10 valet parking and $10 cover charges on top of meals approaching $150 per person, served to the throbbing soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. "What can I say?" asks one observer. "It was a very discombobulating effect. After nine o'clock you couldn't even talk with the person sitting next to you, it was so incredibly loud."

Signs of stress began to show last November, when executive chef Ron Klotzer (formerly of the Ritz-Carlton and the Grange) quietly bailed out of the kitchen. Diners last winter reported that the food took an abrupt turn for the worse. "My last meal at Sempers was pure Sysco," says one customer bitterly. "I swore I'd never eat there again." The doors closed for the last time just before New Year's '99, we're told, two months short of Sempers' first anniversary.

Meanwhile, Sempers' publicity-phobic owner Assad Boulos also held the lease on another struggling property: the recently closed Cent'Anni in Shepherd Plaza. Boulos sent his Sempers general manager and self-described "right-hand man," Sam Bachachi, to staunch the bleeding. "We were surrounded by an ocean of Italian restaurants down here," says Bachachi. "We needed to do something different." Bachachi deftly retooled the space as a Middle Eastern restaurant called Al Diwan [2128 Portsmouth, (713)529-4199] that opened last month to promising reviews. In the topsy-turvy world of this particular plaza, belly dancers and hubbly-bubblies may well succeed where portobellos and pasta failed.

Still, Sempers has left Boulos holding a very large, very empty bag. Boulos, whose fortune reportedly was made in convenience stores and truck stops, is said to have paid cash for the Sempers property and owns it lock, stock and property taxes. Several ideas have been floated for the cavernous vacant property, most of which seem to revolve around topless dancers. Since Sempers is located uncomfortably close to a public school, its reincarnation as a gentlemen's club would necessarily be a private affair, with attendance limited to paid memberships, but at least the appropriate decor is already in place. And paid for, many times over.

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