It's funny how little it takes to fan a spark of restaurant gossip into a full-blown rumor fest. The latest contretemps started with the removal of the international gallery of Rubenesque beauties from the walls of the Empire Cafe last month.
"You wouldn't believe the uproar from the customers," sighs Carla Singer, the Empire's manager. While some had apparently grown fond of the paint-by-number-style girlie portraits, others speculated darkly that if the pictures were gone, then the most highly visible owner, Smoot Hull, must also have been removed from the frame.
"Well, that's hardly news," says Singer tartly. Turns out that Hull indeed sold out of the tragically hip cafe, but those papers were signed last July. Hull quietly conveyed his one-third managing partner's interest to his start-up partners, the brother-and-sister team of Patrick and Cathy Markey. (And for those who care about the provenance of such things, the oil paintings themselves originally came from a pool hall in the Markeys' Ohio hometown.)
It might seem that Hull is slowly but surely withdrawing from the heat of the kitchen; he also closed his Grange restaurant in 1998, a failure as spectacular as the Empire's success. However, Hull has been spotted downtown recently, huddled deep in conversation with Dave Edwards. Edwards, formerly assistant general manager of the Houstonian Hotel and now president of Icon Ventures, plans an ambitious nightclub for grown-ups in the old Isis Theater building in the 1000 block of Prairie at Main, adjoining the opening segment of downtown's massive 90-block Cotswold 2000 renovation project.
Edwards's Mercury Room, announced last month, will recreate the sophisticated atmosphere of a 1920s speakeasy sprawled over some 7,000 square feet, we're told; there will be cigars and live swing, jazz or blues music, and dancing, but "absolutely no DJs or disco," says Edwards, emphatically. "I'm leery of the word club because it makes you think of Spy and Oz and those places. This is a lounge primarily designed as a gathering place for the after-work crowd, or the pre- and post-theater people." Preliminary plans include a short but elegant food service list: a caviar bar upstairs serving -- what else? -- caviar, but also smoked salmon and cold shrimp, and a dessert bar downstairs dishing up tiramisu, creme brulee or the odd bit of chocolate.
Those in the know are convinced that Hull would find this sort of high-roller ambience irresistible (the Mercury Room's budget is estimated at $1.3 million). Too bad we couldn't get a comment from the elusive entrepreneur himself; Hull has made an art of keeping his phone number out of the grubby paws of journalists. Edwards, though, is both accessible and affable. "Yes, Smoot came on board a couple of months ago, and he is now part of the parent management company, Icon Ventures, LLC. We have an agreement, and you can most certainly print that," he says. Construction on the Mercury Room should begin in June, and the owners are shooting for a September 1 opening.
So what about those tacky poolroom pinups at the Empire? Fans will be relieved to hear that, as of last week, they're back in their former haunt and in their full glory. "It all started when we wanted to repaint the walls," says Singer. "You have to take pictures down to paint, right? Then it took us longer than we expected to get the right color and texture we wanted for the faux finish; we had to experiment with a lot of different paints. Meanwhile, people were just having fits about the pictures being gone. So okay, we've put them back. All right already
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