In the final chapter of a long-drawn demise of a lower Westheimer institution, La Strada shuttered this morning. Numerous insiders and former patrons attribute the demise of the 22-year-old restaurant, notorious for its rollicking Sunday brunches, to a 2002 fire which closed the restaurant for over a year.
"Before the fire, there was a spirit there -- kind of a hybrid of mid-city urban chic and wild, flamboyant, screaming-queen fun," says former patron Melissa K. Cherry. "That spirit was gone after the fire. After the fire, they kind of got all velvet-rope exclusionary, and I think that hurt them."
Online, Cherry reminisced about the joint's glory days thusly: "Used to love Sunday brunches there! Tossing Jell-o shots and flying paper airplanes made from gay porn magazines along with spontaneous line dancing and roundhouse showtune chorales. Now it is a morgue."
In 2004, a B4-U-Eat reviewer had this to say about the post-fire Sunday brunch scene at La Strada: "Remember when Sunday was La Strada? Remember when the bellinis flowed, the beads flew and the crowd was as colorful as the confetti? The bellinis are now in plastic, the beads are outlawed and the channel was changed from Queer as Folk to Sex in the City. What fool decided to "straighten" out Sunday?"
While Cherry didn't know quite how true her choice of the word "morgue" was, she says she was still shocked to learn that the place was closing. "I had some wonderful times there. At least those I can remember."
Mark Hanna, owner of local hospitality industry consultancy Customer First, was not shocked. "They never got their luster back when they reopened. That brunch party scene kinda migrated over to Berryhill's [on Montrose]."
Another anonymous B4-U-Eat commenter more or less echoed Hanna's words in a comment posted in 2005: "I went to La Strada to see what all the fuss was about since the re-opening. I had the worst experience dining there. I typically go to Farrago for brunch but settled for La Strada. The service was crap. I have many friends that tend bar and serve in the Montrose area, and many would agree that La Strada has lost its flair. There are far better places to be 'seen' at Sunday brunch that provide MUCH better service and food. Don't waste your time."
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Hanna believes that a certain stagnancy in the kitchen also hampered the restaurant's efforts to get its 1990s mojo back.
"They did nothing food-wise for a really long time, no new chef, nothing like that," says Hanna. "There has been a lot of flux on the Houston dining scene in the last six to nine months, and La Strada didn't keep up."
La Strada opened in 1986. Ten years later, owner Aldo Catania opened a Galleria-area location, which closed in 2007. In 2002, a fire closed the Montrose location, and it didn't reopen until 2004. Last March, the Montrose location declared for bankruptcy over taxes owed to the state, citing assets of less than $50,000 and debts of one to ten million dollars.
Catania could not be reached for comment.