Last Friday night, a friend and I were making our way down Montrose in search of some Mexican food. "I haven't been to El Tiempo in a while," he said, and so we headed off.
Pulling up to the familiar stucco building, I was astonished to see my arch-nemesis positioned squarely out front. The orange cones, the fancy cars lined up for all to see, the wooden podium; they could all mean only one thing.
Shaking my fist in anger as we drove past, I felt completely exasperated. Here is a restaurant with a perfectly serviceable parking lot - no shortage of parking, no forced street parking - that is forcing its patrons to pay extra for their meal for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Worse, the entire parking lot is consumed by valet. Even if you wanted to park your own car and walk the whole 20 feet to the restaurant entrance, you couldn't.
Using the valet at a restaurant like El Tiempo is the equivalent of paying someone to roll you in a wheelchair from the elevator to your cubicle at work when there's nothing wrong with your legs; more than just a waste of time and money, it's an embarrassment.
But the valet is free! people will exclaim. No, it's not. You still have to tip a dollar or two and, if you're like me, you may not have any cash on you. And that valet service is being paid for by someone. Don't think it's been factored into the cost of your meal at the restaurant? Think again.
We ended up at La Mexicana instead that night, and as I sipped my margarita I ruminated on something. If there's one thing we don't have a shortage of in Houston, it's parking lots. This isn't Los Angeles or New York City; restaurateurs here have plenty of space available. Yet the valet problem persists here. Why?
I refuse to credit our restaurants' newfound love affair with valet to the detestable myth that diners in Houston are lazy and fat, and that parking their own car would simply exhaust them. Houstonians are go-getters and do-it-yourselfers - independent types that are by and large much happier parking their own cars.
In some areas of town, valet parking is essential. Downtown and Midtown in particular, where urban density necessitates either valet or a long walk, are expected valet locations. You factor either this or hoofing it into your evening when you eat at places like Voice or Reef. Even at a restaurant like The Grove where the valet isn't free, it's still far better than the endless hunt for a parking spot at Discovery Green.
On the other hand, some of my favorite restaurants in Houston burden their patrons with valet parking for absolutely no discernable reason. Indika, Dolce Vita, Rainbow Lodge, Max's Wine Dive, Catalan, Backstreet Cafe, Glass Wall, Gravitas - all with perfectly good parking lots, but which hold their guests hostage at the tip of a valet ticket.
Want to park your own car at any of these restaurants? Tough. What's more troubling is that the problem seems to be spreading. New restaurants like Bedford are buying into forced valet despite shrieks of annoyance and irritation from large portions of their customer base.
Some restaurants, at least, are getting it right. Textile is a the perfect example of a restaurant that could offer valet in keeping with their upscale nature, but recognizes that valet parking in their easily accessible lot the Heights would come off as laughable at best. I can't tell you what a welcomed relief it is to be able to pull up and park at my leisure, perhaps linger in the car if necessary, eat my meal and then stroll back out to my car when I'm finished eating without any added hassle. The rush of being hurriedly swept out of your car immediately upon entering the parking lot at Dolce Vita, as an example, then the ordeal of waiting for your car afterwards is maddening.
Crave Sushi is an excellent case in point of a restaurant whose diners simply got fed up with forced valet parking and threatened to stop patronizing them. The owners had originally instituted valet as a means of thwarting Midtown clubgoers who were parking in their lot and then ambling off to Pub Fiction, leaving their Miata in Crave's lot until 2 a.m. As honorable as their intentions were, however, guests at Crave didn't appreciate having to pay extra for their meal (especially when Crave was still allowing the clubgoers to park in their lot, but for an additional $15).
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This week, however, the owners finally rescinded their forced valet following vociferous complaints. Instead, they've hired a parking lot manager who ensures that only Crave customers park in the lot. Not ones to eschew extra income, however, they still allow other Midtown patrons to park there for $10.
Not every restaurant can claim to have the same issues that Crave experienced, though. Rainbow Lodge's vast parking lot isn't pressed for space or being usurped by outsiders, yet you don't have the choice as a patron to park your own vehicle. Virtually the same thing can be said for most of the restaurants listed above.
I believe that forced valet in Houston ultimately comes down to two things: greed and vanity. Perhaps they've worked out a deal with a valet company that brings in a little extra cash. Or perhaps they just like the look of assumed exclusivity that accompanies a podium and a line of Mercedes and BMWs parked conspicuously out front. I don't buy their claims that it's a convenience for guests, because it's not. It's a hassle and a source of immense frustration for most people.
And it's a shame, really. Because in times like these when dining budgets are tight, restaurant-goers will take one look at a place with orange cones sitting smugly outside and keep right on going.