Blacksmith, the new coffee shop from Greenway Coffee & Tea owner David Buehrer, opened yesterday. The cafe and Mary's -- the infamous gay leather bar which once occupied the building at 1022 Westheimer -- have at least one thing in common aside from a shared address: serving the needs of their surrounding communities, albeit during very different times.
After Mary's opened in 1972, it quickly became the nexus of Montrose and the large gay community that thrived in the neighborhood for the next three decades. Aside from being a hot spot to meet like-minded gay men (who may or may not have resembled the bears on Mary's famous mural), Mary's was also a gathering place for the entire LGBT community.
"Mary's patio and garden -- known as The Out Back -- was the site of many a memorial service for those lost to AIDS during the '80s and '90s," wrote Marene Gustin in OutSmart two years ago. "According to the Houston ARCH Project, as many as 300 services may have been held there, with ashes scattered or buried in the garden."
When Mary's finally closed in 2009, however, it was after years of poor finances and a shrinking customer base. It's no longer taboo to be gay in Houston -- our mayor is gay, after all -- and the Internet has made it much easier for people of all sexual orientations to meet and hook up, no bar tab required. Between these advances, the gentrification of Montrose and a growing gay diaspora throughout the city, Mary's was no longer "needed" in the same way it once was.
So what does a newly gentrified neighborhood full of shopping, art galleries, popular bars and restaurants need? Coffee shops. And Blacksmith is more than ready to meet and exceed that demand.
Blacksmith is the second new coffee shop to open on this stretch of Lower Westheimer in recent months -- and the second to open in an historic space. Southside Espresso, from Fusion Beans owner/roaster Sean Marshall opened in a part of the old Felix Mexican Restaurant space next door to Uchi a couple of months ago. Inside the small shop, the painted beams that crisscross the ceiling are still intact, left over from the days when Southside Espresso's space was a part of the sprawling Mexican restaurant.
Buehrer is also a coffee roaster, known citywide for his work at his Greenway Plaza coffee shop, and you'll find his specially selected beans in the cortados and flat whites served at Blacksmith. But aside from these surface-level similarities, Blacksmith and Southside Espresso are enjoyably different from another, making worries about coffee shop oversaturation in this area a moot point.
Southside serves beer and wine, but Blacksmith's space is much larger (and includes a front and side patio). There's a dedicated parking lot outside with about 30 spaces, but because of the shared ownership between Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant and Underbelly -- all tied together by investor Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge -- you can park in Hay Merchant's spaces, too. Because Blacksmith opens much earlier in the day than the craft beer bar across Waugh, it's a smart co-sharing of the lot.
There's also a short but smart food menu from Erin Smith, former executive chef at Plonk, who teamed up with Buehrer to create dishes that are unique to the space and expressive of their interests as well as Houston's crazy, mixed-up mishmash of cultures.
Buehrer -- a noted fan of Vietnamese food -- made sure there was a dish of Vietnamese steak and eggs ($15) on the breakfast menu (which is available all day), complete with pâté and crusty French bread. There's also a simple selection of Texas toast with butter and jam ($3) that he included for the serious coffee connoisseurs, giving them something to nibble on that doesn't compete with the flavors in their cups.
Smith's passion is the in-house yogurt that she makes herself, topped with her own granola -- a spiced mix that's also vegan, so that it can be included in a vegan breakfast dish: granola with house-made almond milk, which Smith blends up in a VitaMix. For lunch, Smith has her own twist on sandwiches like BLTs and Cubans. On the BLT, you'll find pickled green tomatoes. On the Cuban, look for her homemade mostarda that incorporates the spicy apricot marmalade served with toast and biscuits at breakfast.
At one end of the large, bright space is a coffee bar that Buehrer has indicated is for "serious coffee nerds" who want to gab with their baristas, but those who enjoy tea and other coffee drinks are well-represented in the beverage offerings too. A selection of Rishi tea is being stocked, along with locally brewed kombuca from Kickin Kombucha.
Angela's Oven is supplying the pastries in the case, Kraftsmen the bread that makes up the sandwiches. Milk is from Mill-King outside of Waco, now that Way Back When can no longer distribute in Houston, but Buehrer is pleased with the find. The milk from Mill-King's herds comes from three different breeds of cows and is blended together for a notably smooth and rich final product, just like one of Buehrer's own cups of coffee.
Buehrer still seems to be struggling to believe that he's finally opening Blacksmith, after a dozen years spent as a barista -- many of those years in the subterranean Greenway Coffee & Tea (which is remaining open under the able stewardship of Buehrer's partner and girlfriend, Ecky Prabanto). And he can't believe it's only been a few years since first walking into Anvil and meeting Bobby Heugel -- who's now his business partner -- after exclaiming: "You guys are doing with cocktails what I'm doing with coffee!"
While some may complain about the repurposing of Mary's as a coffee shop, I think it's oddly perfect. No longer will the historic bar rot slowly into itself with each passing day. The walls that once housed a grocery store when it was first built in the early 1900s before becoming the rowdy, riotous gay bar most Houstonians remember will once again be filled with people. That's as noble a tribute to an old building as there can be.
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The building at 1022 Westheimer has always served its neighborhood. And now it's serving coffee.
Blacksmith is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the week. See more photos from the space in our slideshow.