The receptionist at the Sam Houston Hotel listens to the question about who's in charge of its Riviera Grill these days. "I'm not sure," she laughs.
The question is referred to general manager Stephan Andre. He doesn't call back. Neither does the boutique hotel's owner, Barbara Stovall Smith. Late the next day a message comes through PR channels. John Sheely is no longer owner-chef.
"This was a business decision, and we regret that the business relationship did not work out. We wish chef Sheely well in his future endeavors," the statement goes. "The restaurant will continue to operate as the Riviera Grill under the direction of existing management." So what happened to Sheely?
He'd given birth to the Riviera Grill at Gessner and Westheimer back in the mid-'90s. He later moved the concept to a west Houston hotel. It gained attention, particularly for the fried calamari, so Sheely and the Riviera seemed like a fine fit when the old Sam Houston reopened last year downtown.
Fans of Sheely salivated. You could almost hear forks and knives crossing all over town. Somehow, the newest venture never fulfilled its potential. In January the Riviera got less-than-glowing write-ups from both the Houston Press (see "New Digs, Old Tricks," by Robb Walsh, January 9) and the Houston Chronicle. And it seemed to continue downhill.
"No one was ever in there," says one occasional patron. "And the breakfast costs 20 bucks." Reviewers questioned the high prices and a Prairie Street location that was a little too raw to attract fine dining crowds. There were more general problems plaguing all downtown dining establishments: the perpetual construction and ailing economy. And rumors persisted that first-time hotelier Smith wasn't getting along with Sheely.
One restaurant insider said Sheely wasn't really at the Riviera that much, "but then, neither was anyone else."
When Sheely finally returned the calls for comment, he remained vague about the specifics of the shakeup. The hotel did not buy him out, he says, although he is leaving it the name and the concept he created.
"It was a business decision that just didn't work out," says Sheely, sounding like he's reading from the hotel's PR script. "We're sorry to part ways." But he owned the Riviera and he had the lease for all food and beverage in the hotel. Was business really that bad? "In a nutshell, that's usually the demise of any restaurant," he says.
Fans of the chef, and he has many, will be heartened that he is still peddling his American-Mediterranean cuisine at Mockingbird Bistro, which he opened in February 2002 in the old Quasimodo's in Montrose.
"My wife and I still run the day-to-day operations; we're still there," says Sheely. By all indications, his Mockingbird remains popular.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.