Night Life

War Zone

There's been a war brewing in Houston for a while now -- a quiet war, but a war nonetheless. It's a battle between two different areas, two different cultures, two different worlds. The downtown nightlife scene vs. the Richmond-Westheimer entertainment scene. The sophisticated vs. the rowdy. The snobs vs. the slobs. It's just like Animal House or Caddyshack or Revenge of the Nerds or any of those late-'70s or early-'80s low-brow comedies that promised lots of hi-jinks, mayhem and fart jokes, typically directed at folks whose sphincters were just a little too tight.

It goes like this: Some downtown nightspots have been fighting to preserve their trendiness by not catering to the kind of crowds that usually populate the clubs and restaurants on Richmond and Westheimer. (One downtown proprietor referred to these partiers as "the keg-of-beer crowd.") It's a question of culture as much as entertainment. Upscale watering holes like Spy (112 Travis) and Mercury Room (1008 Prairie) attract a racially diverse crowd that prefers to wear its sophisticated tastes on its designer-label sleeves. Richmond-Westheimer clubgoers, by contrast, tend to be blindingly white and prefer fast cars, cheap beer and American blue jeans.

But it looks like those nightspots out west are infiltrating enemy territory: "Mix-Mex" eatery Cabo, which still has a spot in the once-thriving Shepherd Plaza, was the first to make a charge downtown, opening a restaurant at 419 Travis. Hard Rock Café (502 Texas) also crossed enemy lines by moving from its 14-year-old location on Kirby Drive to Bayou Place. Mitch Burman permanently locked up his Instant Karma club on Richmond in favor of running the recently opened Engine Room (1515 Pease). And the boys at Polly Esther's (6111 Richmond) are planning to launch another retro club downtown. This isn't making NoDo club owners piss in their khakis with fear, but it's making them wary of who might dwell on their scene.

"Our big concern was...when Cabo opened up across the street. We were afraid they were gonna bring a certain clientele down to our neighborhood," says one owner of a popular downtown hangout. "The thing, as a club owner, that you fear is people coming in, whatever this type of crowd might be -- just a crowd that might be too rough for what you want, you know. A crowd that might drink too much or pick fights. That kind of crowd is the crowd that you'd wanna steer clear from as a club owner."

All this talk of attracting "the wrong crowd" makes the current owners of Cabo chuckle, particularly since their eatery was one of the first nightspots to open in the revitalized downtown. "We're probably the most relaxed of all the establishments because we're not a nightclub," says Cabo president Michael Roberson. Way before Roberson and two silent partners bought the two Houston Cabo restaurants from the Fort Worth-based BFX Hospitality Group a couple of months back, original owner James Hillyer took over the lease for the downtown space. BFX started construction in 1997 and eventually opened in April of 1998 Although the new owners insist that downtown scenesters should make an effort to be more presentable when the sun goes down, the folks at Cabo aren't looking to pressure anyone. "You go downtown, go to Cabo, get a fish taco and a margarita, and go to a club," says Roberson. "They know they can come down here and take it easy."

Like Cabo, many of these places making a pilgrimage downtown are looking for new business and new patrons. When the corporate heads at Hard Rock HQ decided to relocate to Bayou Place last May, it was a chance for the bistro/rock museum to redefine itself, to expand beyond its usual offerings. Starting in January, Hard Rock will launch its "three-part day," dividing its operation into distinct categories: lunch, dinner, and nighttime-entertainment. Kelly Muraco, sales manager for the local Hard Rock, insists that the cafe isn't going all uppity, just a different direction. "I really feel that the people who are moving downtown are trying to change their clientele," says Muraco. "That's our deal. We can cater to a different group of people. We're in a place that's surrounded by entertainment facilities. It's just the place to be."

Last Call

The latest cover-free, policy-free nightspot in NoDo is The Hub (312 Main). But, for the love of God, don't call it a club. Opened last May, the establishment -- once home to a clothing shop -- prefers to call itself "Houston's premiere downtown bar and lounge." Why? For one thing, you can actually get in this place. For another, The Hub offers up music, drinks and conversation for anybody who's willing to enter; it even occasionally features music from the likes of DJ Sun, DJ CeePlus and the live band, Cousin. Says manager Chico (that's right, just Chico): "We want people to feel comfortable when they come in. Whether being in shorts and a Polo shirt or...dressed up in a tie and suit, more power to "em."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey