Waving the White Tablecloth

Farewell the tablecloth, farewell the snowy linen and the crisply folded napkin. The old fellows are undone at last. For the last six months or so, the buzz among industry watchers in Houston has been that the style of upmarket operation known in the trade as a white-top restaurant is simply not pulling in the clients the way it used to. This may seem paradoxical at first. The city's population is larger than ever; the amount of money circulating through it is larger than ever, in real dollar terms. Passenger jets have made traveling to the more established East Coast cities as commonplace as going down to Galveston on a train was in the early years of the 20th century. Although only something like 10 percent of U.S. citizens ever apply for a passport, among white-collar workers in large cities, travel to Europe is commonplace enough to be entirely unremarkable.

So with all these moneyed quasi-sophisticates prowling the potholed streets of the Big H in their German automobiles, why would serious dining establishments of the old school be struggling to hang on?

Frédéric Perrier, chef and owner of Cafe Perrier (4304 Westheimer, 713-355-4455) is from a family that has been in the restaurant business since the autumnal reign of Louis XV. In 1759 an ancestor opened up a Cafe Perrier in the town of Baix, in what is today the southwest of France. In 1999 Perrier opened his cafe in a building that had, most recently, housed Al Geranium's Garden Bistro. Prior to coming to Houston, Perrier had launched and operated two restaurants in New York City, La Boheme and the F-Stop, a place famous for being popular with photographers and, naturally, their favorite subject matter, fashion models.

"Bruce Molzan, who had been my partner [in Ruggles Grille 5115, which is still in operation at 5115 Westheimer in Saks Fifth Avenue, 713-963-8067], told me that in Houston, it is not a good idea to call a restaurant French. The minute a [Houstonian] hears the word French, they think of a special-occasion restaurant, and you cannot live on that. People have birthdays and anniversaries only once a year. He was right."

"A white tablecloth means, to most people, a special-occasion restaurant, one that is too expensive for casual dining with friends," he adds. "And, maybe, I have to spend $400 a week for the linen service. Then I have to charge $14.75 for a chicken entrée instead of $11.75."

Charles V. Miller, a restaurant broker who by his own admission eats out "ten or 12 times a week," concurs: "A white tablecloth says it is a formal coat-and-tie restaurant….Who wants to come home from work, then get into a coat and tie to go out to dinner? You might do that on Saturday night or for a very important date or to celebrate closing the deal, but never as a regular thing."

"The only white tablecloth places I see doing well are steak houses, which attract a more traditional sort of male customer," Miller continues. "Other very good white tablecloth restaurants I have been in on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night may have three or four tables occupied for the entire evening."

This is, for serious chefs who see themselves as presenting not mere nourishment but an artistic experience, not good news. In France, serious cooking is an experience that Ismail Merchant, the producer half of the Merchant Ivory team, once observed "is considered as much an art form as music, painting, or literature…."

Consequently, Perrier, who has given Houstonians a quality French dining venue at casual dining prices, is planning to change his cafe into a brasserie. This is, of course, a bit of Gallic wit à la Perrier. "Brasserie" can mean in French either brewing, brewery or a restaurant, but a brasseur d'affaires means, idiomatically, a big business man. Establishment Houston loves the big business man.

The Parisian understanding of the word brasserie is that it indicates an establishment with Alsatian ties. That is, a place with beer and choucroute. Perrier plans to have ten beer taps, sea creatures such as oysters on ice, and choucroute garnie. He also will open up the dining room, eliminating the partitions, and he will get rid of the white tablecloths, replacing them with old French newspapers under clear lacquer. There will be framed photographs of fabulous French film stars of the golden age of the Cahiers du Cinéma.

The idea here, of course, is to provide the sort of wonderful food that has been delighting Americans since Mark Twain wrote of his Parisian experiences in Innocents Abroad, his seminal work wherein he delineated the essential differences between the rawboned New World and the tired Old World. But Perrier won't make us wear no monkey suits, no sir-ee -- that's the American touch.