Some diners are notoriously fickle when it comes to restaurant choices. They barnstorm the new hot place for a few months and then are off to the next one. Because of this and many other factors, the restaurant business is hard. That’s common knowledge. It may, however, be even more challenging to survive than people think.
Looking back at former Houston Press restaurant critic Katharine Shilcutt’s list of the ten best new Houston restaurants in 2011 leads to a shocking revelation: after five years, six have already closed. The factors that ensure endurance—a steadfast customer base, stable ownership, reasonable lease costs and loyal employees—likely weren’t present in many cases.
Here’s a look at the current status of the ten restaurants that were once on the top of the heap.
10. Radical Eats—Closed. Shilcutt praised owner-chef Staci Davis’s original vegan Tex-Mex restaurant in Northside Village as “bringing a healthy, relatively inexpensive dining option to a low-income neighborhood.” In 2013, Davis took over the Montrose space where Roots Bistro had just closed. The maneuver failed and Davis found herself closing her own restaurant not quite two years later.
These days, Davis has several concurrent projects. She’ll soon be doing pop-up dinners and teaching cooking classes, including Thanksgiving- and tamale-themed classes at Etta’s Little Kitchen at 4212 Downing in the Third Ward. She also hosts investigative reporting radio show “The Inner Side” on KPFT 90.1 FM every-other Thursday at 10:30 p.m.
Davis says that if she could have foreseen the future, she never would have moved Radical Eats from the original Northside Village location and would have bought it instead. “I listened to the wrong people. I had a broker tell me I could not stay, claiming if I repaired the roof I’d have to re-zone everything. Looking back, I’m not even sure that’s true, but at the time people convinced me I had to move.”
On a brighter note, Shilcutt also gave a shout-out to the Green Seed Vegan truck, which is still alive and well in a storefront at 4320 Almeda.
9. Xuco Xicana—Closed. Chef Jonathan Jones’s outstanding interior and coastal Mexican fare, which included beautiful ceviche, rib-sticking pozole and a variety of tender, spicy chicken wings, got plenty of acclaim from critics and on social media, but never seemed to charm the denizens of midtown. People seemed disconcerted at the menu changes at the former El Patio location, which was known for traditional Tex-Mex and blue margaritas. The company and Jones parted ways and the subsequent attempt to change the name back to El Patio proved that sometimes you can’t go home again. It closed soon after, became Cook & Collins for about two years and is now Stoked Tacos & Tequila, which seems like a much better fit for the area.
The good news is that Jones brought some of his exemplary dishes to the menu of El Big Bad in downtown Houston. Those include the Jalisco “Wangs” and his outstanding ceviche. In the winter, keep an eye out for the pozole during weekend brunch.
8. El Gran Malo—Closed. There’s some synchronicity with number nine above. El Gran Malo was the predecessor to El Big Bad. People loved the funky interior and patio at 2307 Ella. The stories conflict on why, exactly, El Gran Malo closed in February 2014. It was as popular as as ever. What is known for sure is that Roost owner Kevin Naderi was the property landlord and, for whatever reason, El Gran Malo closed and the owners moved their operation downtown and became El Big Bad, which exists to this day. It soon hired chef Jonathan Jones (from Xuco Xicana, as noted above). Naderi opened the ill-fated Lillo & Ella in the space, which only survived about a year and four months. The building recently became home to casual eatery The Barking Pig.
7. Mala Sichuan, 9448 Bellaire—Open. Not only is Mala Sichuan in the International District still thriving, it spun off a second location in Montrose last year. Diners still flock to the original for Sichuan peppercorn-laden favorites like red oil dumplings, spicy crispy chicken and dan dan noodles. Be sure and ask about the wine list. The selection by Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whiskey complements the food beautifully.
6. The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen, 2712 Richmond—Open. The Queen Vic is still a great (if underrated) spot for beer and British-style Indian pub fare. Owners Rick and Shiva Patel went on to open a second location of his original Portugese eatery, Oporto, in Midtown. The newer one is named Oporto Fooding House and Wine and was the Houston Press pick for Best New Restaurant in 2015.
5. TQLA—Closed. Chef Tommy Birdwell's food at TQLA never got the respect it deserved, probably thanks in part to the fact that at the time Washington Avenue was a raucous party scene on the weekends. It was dangerous to even drive in the area for fear of hitting some drunk person who had wandered into the street. A restaurant named Commonwealth tried to make it in the same spot once TQLA closed but didn’t survive long. Reader George G. Davis says Commonwealth's eviction notice is still taped to the door.
4. Brasserie 19, 1962 West Gray—Open. This classic French eatery by Clark Cooper Concepts—which also runs Ibiza, The Dunlavy and other restaurants—is another survivor. It’s been through a few chefs and bar directors since opening but that kind of turnover isn't really abnormal for the industry. Jaime Salazar is the executive chef now, while Brandi Key oversees all of the culinary operations for most Clark Cooper Concepts restaurants. It’s a great place for wine, oysters and French-style charcuterie.
3. Coppa Ristorante Italiano—Closed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the original Coppa where Brandi Key used to be executive chef. It closed in October 2014 amid rumors that the landlord wasn’t maintaining the property. The official word from Clark Cooper Concepts was that it simply wanted to focus on its other restaurants. Either way, the good news is that many of the dishes live on at Coppa Osteria, the spin-off in Rice Village. That’s good, because it would be horrible to not be able to still get the meatballs or Key’s luxurious take on spaghetti carbonara. The old Coppa space is now home to Ula's Mexican Restaurant & Cantina.
2. Philippe Restaurant + Lounge—Closed. Chef Philippe Schmit was the heart and soul of his eponymous French restaurant but something happened—rumors suggested a dispute with the owners—that caused him to leave in September 2013. In January 2014, the owners announced the name was changing to Table On Post Oak under Schmit’s chef de cuisine, Manuel Pucha. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very exciting until Invest Hospitality, whose brands include L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, transformed it into La Table. (Pucha has now lasted through three concepts, which is rather remarkable.) The upstairs is fine dining, the downstairs is more casual and there’s an in-house bakery. As for Schmit: he still hasn’t opened a restaurant of his own. A stint at Toulouse in the River Oaks District shopping center was short-lived and his only current role is as a consultant for Flo Paris Bakery. This a chef who has much to offer diners. Hopefully, we’ll see his talents showcased elsewhere someday.
1. Pondicheri, 2800 Kirby, B132—Open. Chef Anita Jaisinghani’s second restaurant has beaten the odds in more ways than one. Not only is it one of the survivors of the “Class of 2011” but it’s even survived the West Ave shopping center that has seen several other restaurants come and go, including Katsuya, Nara, Trenza and Ava Kitchen and Whiskey Bar. Actually, it hasn’t just survived—it’s thrived, adding Pondicheri Bake Lab + Shop upstairs and then, most exciting of all, opening a second Pondicheri in the NoMad neighborhood of New York City. The idea that the Big Apple is now home to a “Houston import” is testament to how far we have come as a culinary capital in our own right. Considering its four-star rating on Yelp, New Yorkers are appreciating their own turns with Indian breakfast thalis and spiced pastries.