Bye-Bye, Bistrot?

Could award-winning chef Monica Pope be pulling up stakes? Maybe.

Her lease for the Boulevard Bistrot space at 4319 Montrose Boulevard expired February 28. Pope and her partner, general manager Andrea Lazar, had hoped to sign a long-term lease for the 2,500-square-foot space nestled in the heart of the Museum District, but owner Steve Zimmerman said no. In fact, Pope says that he wanted to raise the rent by several thousand dollars a month.

"Raising the rent was the last thing I thought would happen," says Pope. "We've been here since 1994 -- we made this block. It's a great block, but it's not that great. We have parking and valet problems. Eight thousand dollars a month would just be ludicrous."

"They're good girls," says Zimmerman from his ritzy Colombe d'Or headquarters farther down the street. "I like them. I'll work with them. But I can't get locked into a 15-year lease at the current rate or less. That's a hot property down there."

Zimmerman denies problems with parking and thinks the residents of the block work well together in that regard. He says the upscale Aries at 4315 Montrose, Boulevard Bistrot and end-block tenant Zimm's (operated by Zimmerman's ex-wife, Becky Zimmerman) attract different crowds and operate at different hours. Zimmerman owns the entire block, valued at millions of dollars; the tax appraisal value for the 49-seat Bistrot space alone is $407,980.

But Pope says the bistro has seen a 22 percent drop in revenues since the collapse of Enron, and with a looming rent hike, she's been looking at other options. "I have friends and opportunities in California, and with what's been going on lately I thought maybe now is the time to do that," she says, "because we'll have to do something."

Zimmerman says he didn't know there was a problem or that Pope and Lazar were considering moving. "I guess I'm like the husband: I'm the last to know."

"We would really like to stay here," says Pope of her Montrose location. "But we've hired somebody to look at spaces, and there are a lot of them around, like the old Movable Feast" on West Alabama. "We've been here nine years and I always felt that I would be one of those chef-owners who was in a place for 30 years. And maybe this isn't the right time to go to California, because I don't feel like I'm done with Houston yet."

But so far, she says, they haven't had any luck with a new Houston space. "People see Monica Pope walk in the door and they see dollar signs," she says. "I wish people would just realize that business hasn't been that good lately."

Not good, indeed. Several restaurants in the area have closed, including Tony Ruppe's, Fox Diner and Mesa Grill. Aries has felt the economic pinch, too. "My early week is down," says chef-owner Scott Tycer. "And there is a parking and valet problem here…My lease is up in May, so I'll be going to Steve Zimmerman at that time. Frankly, I think $8,000 for that space [Boulevard Bistrot] is unreasonable given the issues here. I wouldn't be opposed to moving Aries. If he raised my rent that much, I couldn't stay. The bank would kill me."

Pope thinks Zimmerman might be trying to force her out to expand Zimm's, which suffered serious fire damage in 2000. "After the fire, when he remodeled he left a door between the spaces," she says. "I think he thought we could serve food over at Zimm's, but that just never worked out."

But Zimmerman says the expansion idea is crazy. "To mess with something as good as Zimm's?" he scoffs. "That would be stupid. Besides, Becky and I have two teenage sons; she has her hands full."

So what would happen to the space if Boulevard Bistrot moved out? "I'd want a restaurant in there, not another bar," says Zimmerman. "If I couldn't find tenants as good as the girls, I would put something in there myself." But he's quick to add that he hasn't planned a new restaurant and is quite busy with his ever-increasing Colombe d'Or empire. For instance, he's creating a separate menu of late-night nibbles for the grand hotel's bar and library.

As of press time, Pope and Lazar intend to sign a half-year extension to their lease at the current rate of $6,000 a month. "We just haven't gotten around to it yet," says Pope. "We have a new baby, Lilli, and Andrea's still on maternity leave."

But it remains to be seen whether Boulevard Bistrot will be on Montrose or even in Houston when those six months are up.

"I'll work with them," says Zimmerman, "but I'm in business to be in business."

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Marene Gustin