The Houston Valet Conundrum
There are a lot of things Houstonians hate. Humidity. Bad barbecue. The city of Dallas.
But there are few more contentious topics in the Bayou City than valet parking.
When I first moved here, the whole valet situation was confusing to me. We're not New York City. We do have parking spaces here. Why do I need to pay a guy to park my car when the valet stand is farther from the door than the closest parking space? I was mystified.
I took to Twitter and posted what I thought was a harmless tweet: OK, what's the deal with valet parking in Houston? It doesn't make sense when the empty spots are closer than the valet stand.
Turns out I wasn't the only person confused about valet, and it was far from a new topic of discussion (and wrath) in Houston. Tweets poured in about the worst restaurants that make you valet, the incompetence of valet drivers and the absolute injustice of it all. "We're Texans," seemed to be the consensus. "Ain't nobody gonna make us do nothin'." Except, it seems, pay someone else to park our cars.
I started somewhat of a mission to figure out why valet is so prevalent, aside from the obvious: not enough parking spaces. It seemed to me that plenty of restaurants had the proper number of parking spaces for their guests, but they still chose to use valet. Everyone I talked to agreed and added his or her own anecdote about the time when some great injustice happened as a result of being forced to valet.
I heard stories of iPods being stolen, cars being scratched and money being unnecessarily spent. On Twitter, people told me about a valet driver screwing up a car because he didn't know how to drive a standard. The valet's insurance continues to give the driver the runaround. Recently, a valet driver for Corner Table restaurant made a right turn from a left lane and struck and killed a motorcyclist, igniting the debate anew. Readers claimed that some valet drivers are barely old enough to have a license, while others pointed fingers at certain ethnic groups who make up the majority of valet drivers in Houston. It's a sad story that shouldn't have turned into a discussion about valet, but it has.
Because I'd already heard so much from the public's perspective, I sought out explanations from local restaurateurs to find out the reasoning behind having valet.
My first call was to Ray Salti, the owner of Sorrel Urban Bistro and Ray's Grill, because Sorrel was the first place I encountered where the valet stand was farther from the door than some of the parking spaces. I called Salti to ask him what the heck was up with that, but after hearing him out, I began to change my tune.
"We don't have valet on a regular basis," he explained, "but once we look in the computer the day before and see how many reservations there are, we call the valet guy. The reason is we have 62 spots. And when we see 180 people coming in between 11 and 1...we don't want the older crowd to go park across the street and have a hard time coming in. It's based on demand."
OK, I thought. That makes sense. Perhaps there were empty spaces because I arrived early that day, but the staff anticipated that the lot would fill up soon. Restaurants that have only a certain number of assigned spaces in a specific lot use valet to fit more cars in one space than would be possible if we all parked our own cars. Valet drivers can double stack and triple stack cars, then work as a team to retrieve a vehicle once it's needed again. It would be unacceptable for a diner to interrupt someone else's meal to move a car.
Salti did admit that, like many restauranteurs, he hates valet.
"Valet is the worst thing for me," he says. "I hate it. If you're not busy, it complicates things. But we just want to give you an extra service. We started it when we first opened, but we stopped. One person who doesn't like it is enough for me."
Even though people are complaining again (or maybe they never really stopped), Salti doesn't intend to stop using valet on days when he anticipates being busy. He also likes the added security that having valet drivers watching cars provides.
I heard a similar story from Marco Wiles of Da Marco, Dolce Vita and Vinoteca Poscol. He insists that the parking situation (or lack thereof) in the neighborhood where Da Marco is located necessitates the use of valet.
"If we don't have valet, we fit 10 cars, but with valet, we can fit 20 cars," Wiles says. "It's complimentary. We have a police officer there. Some people park in front of Avalon and get towed, then it's a $20 cab ride plus 220 bucks. Give the guys a couple of bucks."
The increased security coupled with free-but-not-really-cause-you-have-to-tip parking does sound like a good deal, but many Houstonians flat out don't want strangers driving their cars, no matter the perks.
Scott Sulma, general manager of Tony's, told me that they don't have much of an option but to hire valet services for the restaurant because they literally don't have a lot.
"We have the third story of the parking garage next door," he explains. "We can't ask our guests – especially the older ones – to walk all that way."
After I started to understand the need for valet in Houston, I began to defend it ever so slightly to people who complained.
"But don't you know about El Real?" they'd ask. El Real's owner Robb Walsh has a documented hatred of valet from when he was the restaurant critic here at the Houston Press, but as soon as he opened his own restaurant, a valet stand popped up out front. A few people jumped to Walsh's defense when his stance on valet was questioned.
"Not El Real's fault that city parking code forces them to use valet to satisfy parking requirements," one person wrote to me on Twitter.
"A lot of places who 'shouldn't have to have' valet have no other option," wrote another.
I hadn't realized before that there could be some sort of city mandate that forces restaurants to hire valets. That, of course, would help explain its prevalence. I sat down with my computer and spent a long morning perusing municode, the city's online record of ordinances, for anything that explicitly states that valet is required under certain circumstances.
And I found nothing.
The city has a number of ordinances dealing with valet permitting but nothing about a restaurant being compelled to hire a valet company for whatever reason. There are rules that valet companies have to comply with, but only if they pick up and drop off in an area that is a city right-of-way, as in the valet zone in front of Reef.
Feeling conquered by municode, I got in touch with the media liaison for the Parking Management Division (among other things), Chris Newport, and asked him to explain the city's involvement with valet parking in layman's terms. Here's what he told me:
"The city does not require anyone to have valet."
What the city does stipulate, it seems, is that a business must provide so many off-street parking spaces dependent upon the square-footage of the business. As the ordinances are amended, older businesses are grandfathered in and may not face as strict of rules, but there is a ratio between square feet and parking spaces that must be met.
"But," Newport explains, "you are allowed to meet that ratio in a number of different ways. You get a credit, so to speak, if you provide valet because it lowers the number of spaces you need because valets can double stack and triple stack cars and get more vehicles in a valet lot. But you can also meet that requirement by having a garage or leasing a lot or buying a lot."
So when restaurateurs say that they have valet because they have no other choice, it's only half-true. Perhaps, they cannot afford to buy up a nearby space and turn it into a lot or pay a neighboring business to use its space. In this case, a restaurant would have to employ a valet service to meet the appropriate ratio between square footage and parking spaces. Is it mandated? Not exactly. Is it the only option? Pretty much.
Some restaurants have chosen to do what Fleming's does, which is provide parking spaces in the front for guests to park themselves but also provide valet parking in a lot in the back. The valet drivers can use only the back lot, and diners can use only the front. If the front fills up, you have to valet, but it's nice to know the option exists.
I'm not sure why more restaurants don't give you the option of whether to valet or not. Perhaps they feel the option is inherent in the fact that most places have at least a few street parking spaces if you're willing to walk a bit.
Ian Rosenberg of Mongoose Versus Cobra and 13 Celsius is very involved in developing Midtown, and though he tries to provide as much free parking to his patrons as possible, he thinks it's a shame that Houstonians are so averse to traveling by foot.
"Go to any great urban city, and you walk anywhere," Rosenberg says. "It's healthy for you. We're trying to create a pedestrian neighborhood, but we live in a city that is dominated by a car. There are definitely more things the city could do like create parking management districts."
For now, if you don't want to valet, parking and walking or taking the light rail or a bus are your best options. With Houston continuing to grow and the restaurant scene continuing to thrive, it's not likely that the number of valet stands in the city will decrease anytime soon.
Talking to restaurateurs has helped me understand the valet problem a bit more clearly, but I do still think that maintaining that valet is a city requirement is a bit of a half-truth perpetuated by people in the business who can't or won't pay to secure more parking for customers.
Don't tell us the city is making you use valet. Tell us you can't afford another lot, and valet saves space. Being honest with us helps us understand where the problem really lies, which could, in turn, encourage us to do something about it.
But unfortunately, knowing the truth doesn't make us any less pissed that we had to pay a guy $5 to park three feet away. Some things never change.
Houston Food Trucks' Recipes
Get your hands on Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook. Kaitlin Steinberg
I just got my hands on a copy of Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook: Houston Edition, Volume 1 here in the office, and good luck getting anything useful out of me the rest of the day. Now I can't wait for 6 p.m., when I can go home and try some of the recipes.
Austin-based author and food truck-lover Tiffany Harelik ("rhymes with garlic") released the first volume of recipes from Houston food trucks in early August, and she's already produced two volumes of Austin food truck recipes, a Portland cookbook and a Dallas/Fort Worth cookbook. The Houston cookbook is labeled "Volume 1," so we can only assume there are more to come. The Houston edition is available online and at Barnes and Noble.
For the cookbook, Harelik profiled 23 local trucks and got to know the chefs and owners who taught her some of their tricks of the trade. She also got guidance from her friend Jae Kim of Chi'Lantro BBQ and "local food truck authorities" Debra Ford, Paul Galvani, Rebecca Masson and Mai Pham, a frequent EOW contributor.
With the help of these locals and the Haute Wheels Festival, Harelik learned that, "Houston food truck fans are devoted followers who are serious about their street food cravings."
The book is divided into four recipe categories: Sauces and Spreads; Appetizers, Sides and Small Plates; Handhelds; and Sweets. The book also contains histories of the food trucks that are profiled and four "Ask A Local" sections in which Houston foodies discuss the role of food trucks in town and their personal favorites. Bernie's Burger Bus, H-town strEATS,Phamily Bites and Eatsie Boys get a lot of love from those interviewed (though not all are profiled in the book).
Some of the recipes I can't wait to try include:
• Chimichurri Sauce from Stick It
• Apple Horseradish Slaw from Good Dog Hot Dogs
• Bernie's Pickles from Bernie's Burger Bus
• Homemade Kimchi from Coreanos
• Fried Avocado Taco from H-town strEATs
• Veggie Burger from Fraiche
• Pineapple Jalapeño Italian Soda from Snow Cone Angels
• Brownies from Frosted Betty
Each of the recipes includes beautiful photographs of the food and the truck, as well as interviews with the owners, who dish on their own favorite food trucks and what it's like to be in the food truck business.
It's a wonderfully designed book with great interviews and easy-to-follow recipes. My only complaint is that the 40 recipes come from 23 food trucks, so there are a lot of overlaps in the trucks that are highlighted. And of course, anytime a book focuses on only a certain number of food trucks, there will be favorites left out. Where's the Waffle Bus? Where's Eatsie Boys? Where are Muishi Makirritos and Phamily Bites?
I suppose those will be in Volume 2, and these recipes are certainly enough to keep me busy for now.
So, Ms. Harelik, we're glad you liked our food, but you're far from done here! Come back soon and check out more of our awesome trucks. As you can probably tell, we're pretty proud of 'em.
Houston's Best Tiki Bars*
Five places to get your tiki cocktail fix. Brittanie Shey
Houston is finally set to get a true 21st-century tiki bar next month, when Lei Low finally opens. Though it won't be the city's first tiki bar. The long-gone Shamrock Hilton was once the site of a Trader Vic's. There was a tiki bar out on the west side when I first moved to town. And who could forget Hula Mama's? (Answer: a lot of people could forget it. It closed without fanfare.) There's even a HAIF thread about tiki in Houstonover the years.
But you don't have to wait until Lei Low opens to get a taste of the Polynesian/Caribbean fusion that is tiki cocktails. Here are five places in Houston that pass for decent tiki bars *until we get a dedicated one.
5. Grand Prize There's a reason Lei Low chose Grand Prize as the spot for its two pop-up nights earlier this summer. The bar has an excellent selection of rums and a few classic and tiki drinks on the menu, and often sports frozen and on-tap cocktails with a tiki flair. Plus, while there are no carvings or bamboo, the dark, divey atmosphere does feel a bit like a getaway.
4. Beaver's Bobby Heugel cut his teeth here with weekly tiki night long before Anvil ever opened. Beaver's still offers the occasional tiki cocktail – the Lanai Luau and Whorechata are both favorites. They also regularly feature a house punch and spins on the frozen daiquiri.
3. Anvil The original home of Tiki Tuesday. Each week Anvil's bartenders dress in aloha wear and conspire to create a cocktail menu based on different specific themes, like flaming drinks or "summer harvest." But if weeknights don't work for you, never fear. Anvil can still make a mean modern daiquiri, and their new menu even includes a play on the Dark and Stormy.
2. Under the Volcano For years, the Volcano was the only place in town to get cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice. And they're still the only place to get those frozen rum and Cokes or more sophisticated, unusual fare like a lychee cocktail. And when it comes to décor, the Volcano has it down. Wood everywhere, those papier-mache masks, the little Mictecacihuatl statue inside the little niche. Okay, so that's not exactly Polynesia, but it's South American, which when it comes to atmosphere is close enough.
1. Double Trouble
Try a $1,500 and Two Weeks Off, Double Trouble's play on the mai tai, and bask in the glow of a large Witco lamp (he's the artist who decorated Elvis's Jungle Room at Graceland). There are a few other rum drinks on the menu, and Double Trouble usually has a Jamaican punch settling in the cooler, but the real action here happens on tiki night, the last Monday of every month. On those nights, Double Trouble teams up with the owner of Sig's Lagoon (purveyor of fine tiki mugs) to provide music and more to add to the Polynesia atmosphere.
Openings and Closings
Family-friendly restaurants, Labor Day openings & more. Molly Dunn
What a month it has been for openings and closings. Fortunately, we haven't seen many restaurants leave the Houston dining scene, but we are in store for a ton of anticipated fall openings. We will get to that in a little bit, so let's start with the openings and closings from this week.
Habibi Cakes officially opened in the Spring Branch area and already has a review on Yelp with pictures of the new establishment. The bakery specializes in cupcakes, cakes made with fondant and ice cream. Unlike most bakeries, Habibi Cakes offers "Decorating Parties" where you and your friends can decorate cakes and cupcakes in the store. The hands-on classes will show you how to use certain tools to decorate cakes and cupcakes and will give you tips on using fondant, edible glitter and tools to write with on your cakes. Each person in the party will get to decorate a two-layer round cake and take it home after the party is over.
Looking for authentic Indian meals and desserts? Well, Jyoti Sweets offers both. At this Indian restaurant on Clay Road, you can feast on a variety of samosas, raita, curry, masala and Indian desserts, such as mango kulfi (ice cream) and kheer. The restaurant also serves baked Indian sweets aside from the desserts offered on the regular menu, like a variety of barfi, which is a confection made from condensed milk and sugar.
According to the B4-U-Eat Newsletter, Mexseaco Bar & Grill opened August 26 on Pearland Parkway. The Tex-Mex restaurant combines the flavors of South Texas and Mexican-American cuisine; the menu features locally caught seafood and a wide variety of Mexican beers.
The old Heights location of D'Amico's was replaced by City Oven on September 3, according to Eater. The restaurant serves 15 beers on tap and roughly nine wood-fire baked pizzas. With football season underway, this could be a new hangout spot to watch the Texans games.
Those of who you enjoy dining at Ibiza, Coppa and Brasserie 19, will need to check out the highly anticipated casual version, Coppa Osteria, which opened September 2. Charles Clark and Grant Cooper have taken the concepts from the previously mentioned restaurants and made a more casual restaurant featuring a pizza drive-thru window, house-made pasta and even charcuterie boards, according to Eater. This Italian restaurant will make you feel at home with the backyard setting and family-friendly atmosphere.
Osteria Mazzantini opened on Labor Day. According to B4-U-Eat, the restaurant had a soft opening August 26 through 31. Only the bar section was open to serve cocktails and items off the bar menu.
Following the trend of family-friendly atmospheres and delectable cuisine, Allo French Rotisserie plans to open in the middle of September. Eric Goldner of Hubbell & Hudson in The Woodlands is bringing a French bistro with a relaxing and casual dining experience to Vintage Park in the coming weeks.
In brick-and-mortar news, Good Dog Hot Dogs food truck will open a permanent location in the Heights next month. While they will still serve hot dogs in the food truck, the brick-and-mortar location will feature non-hot dog entrees and even local craft beer, according to Eater.
During all this hustle and bustle of restaurants opening, Flamingo Steak & Seafood in Galveston shut its doors two weeks ago, but only to reopen with a new name, new venue and new menu. The restaurant is now called Flamingo Bar & Grill, according to B4-U-Eat. We aren't sure what the newly remodeled restaurant looks like or serves on the menu right now. More information to come.
The only other closing reported this week is Sweet Lola Yogurt Bar, which will close at the end of September. In an announcement posted on Facebook, Lola says that the yogurt bar will keep customers informed on plans for 2014. We aren't sure if that means the yogurt bar will reopen or will move to a new location, but either way, this is the last month for Sweet Lola Yogurt Bar in Midtown.
In coming soon news, two new restaurants will open in Upper Kirby. Swamplot reports that a former catering company's location at 3030 Audley is under renovations to become a restaurant named Audley Street Cafe. The soon-to-be restaurant is just around the corner from Lamar High School.
Food Network Star contestant Susie Jimenez will open Trenza next to Pondicheri in Upper Kirby on October 5. Jimenez's restaurant will be a fusion of Indian and Latin cuisine.
Unfortunately, CK Steakhouse, a concept created by Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill and Ronnie Killen of the soon-to-open Killen's BBQ, will not open this fall due to setbacks in building the restaurant. Eater reports that Craig and Killen planned to simply renovate the location on West 19th but will have to build from the ground up instead. CK Steakhouse will now open in spring 2014.
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