Max's Wine Dive Moving into Montrose; What Does That Mean for Houston?

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Fried eggs and truffle oil as toppings may be old hat to foodies these days. We're easily distracted creatures who paw like needle-clawed kittens at every new bauble that comes along.

But back in the rollicking days of the mid-2000s, the novelty had not yet worn thin and restaurants like Max's Wine Dive were blowing the average diner's mind by serving Champagne with fried chicken.

It's with nostalgia for a simpler time that I read my friend Judy Le's review of the original Max's Wine Dive when it opened in Houston in late 2006. Le's write-up at the now-defunct Houstonist (where she and I first met) is filled with the kind of sincere wonder that was fostered by swaggering restaurants like Max's Wine Dive, where chef Jonathan Jones -- he of the steak knife driven pointedly into a po-boy the size of a Chrysler at successive restaurant ventures such as Beaver's -- was showcasing the type of intentionally over-the-top food that quickly became his signature.

"Our plate of deluxe fries were piled high on a huge platter, smothered in venison chili, black truffle oil, gruyere cheese and two fried eggs," wrote Le. "After a split second to admire the decadence, the plate was cleaned spotless by our greedy little fingers."

Le finishes: "How is it possible that we have never had fried eggs on top of chili fries?!"

How indeed, one wonders now with over six years' worth of distance from the original Max's menu, was that possible? You can get a Faygo topped with a fried egg these days. Where has our innocence gone?

Max's Wine Dive continues to stun and impress with its food, now under the stewardship of the more focused chef Michael Pelligrino, whose menu these days is split between Max's classic dishes and his own creations. You'll still find the Nacho Mama's oysters and Texas "haute" dog, but you'll also find Pelligrino's relatively austere dishes like trout with lentils, roasted tomatoes and charred lemon cream or roasted cauliflower dressed simply in olive oil, salt and pepper.

And although -- to the foodie's eye -- the hubbub may have died down, Max's still merits a long wait and packed house every night at its original Washington Avenue location. It was one of the first entrants to the Washington Avenue scene, an orgiastic 24-7 party which paired well with what Texas Monthly dubbed a "food orgy" inside the restaurant, and although the club and bar scene itself has now died down, Max's Wine Dive has survived intact.

Indeed, the once-frenzied Washington Avenue strip seems to be settling down into some version of maturity and is now one of the better restaurant corridors in town, boasting critical darlings like Coppa and benjy's, straightforward favorites like Laurenzo's and BRC Gastropub and promising newcomers like Hollister Grill, Katch-22 and Federal American Grill.

Max's Wine Dive has clearly learned something along the way, opening locations in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas during those intervening years -- all of which are as successful as their mothership. Perhaps you've long wondered why Max's hasn't opened another location in Houston, perhaps you haven't. Either way, Max's is doing so now.

Lasco Enterprises (which also owns The Tasting Room chain of wine bars, another wildly successful venture that started as a small tasting room approximately the same size as the original Max's) announced last Friday that a second location of Max's Wine Dive would be opening in Montrose next door to Cuchara. While an exact date hasn't been set for its grand opening, this second location will offer more space than the notoriously tiny Washington Avenue spot -- though only by 500 square feet -- and the same combination of upscale "dive" food and chef-driven dishes that define the original location.

A chef has not been hired for this new location, although it's tough to imagine that some smart young thing out there won't snap this up. A showcase restaurant in the middle of the hottest dining neighborhood in Houston isn't exactly a tough sell.

What remains a tough sell for me, however, are a few niggling thoughts.

What will become of the already fraught parking situation here at the corner of Fairview and Taft? The parking lot barely contains the Cuchara crowd as it is. Its neighbor, Gratifi, nearly closed three years ago after a parking dispute with the City of Houston, eventually spending $300,000 on a new lot (and a pissed-off sign to go with it) in order to accommodate parking requirements.

Moreover, I find it interesting -- especially after a conversation with my friend Chris Frankel, a real estate and economics geek when he's not tending bar -- that so many "new" restaurants opening around Houston these days are actually second locations or new concepts from long-established restaurateurs. Coppa is expanding into Rice Village, El Gran Malo into downtown, Liberty Kitchen into the Galleria, Jus' Mac into Sugar Land. Mockingbird Cafe owner John Sheely is opening a new restaurant on Post Oak Boulevard alongside fellow Montrose chef/restaurateur Hugo Ortega. Shepard Ross of Glass Wall recently opened Brooklyn Athletic Club, and subsequently a Brooklyn Athletic Club food truck. Even the little guys are doing it: Radical Eats owner Staci Davis is opening a second restaurant although her customers are, shall we say, a little upset over the news.

While it's exciting to see friendly faces cropping up throughout the city -- especially if you're a Flying Saucer fan, for example, but don't want to drive from your home base in Missouri City just to pound a pint -- part of me bristles at the ongoing trend of homogenization.

Houston has long been the city where chain restaurants come to die, a place where there is no place for On the Border or Marie Callender's. When chain expansion goes wrong here, it goes terribly wrong. One only needs to eat at the original location of Carrabba's or Ninfa's to see just how embarrassing every other incarnation is by comparison. Some even tend to regard our own legitimately good, homegrown chains like James Coney Island or the Pappas family of restaurants with unwarranted disdain.

What worries me is the idea that established restaurateurs and their moneyed backers are driving up the cost of real estate in popular areas with these second, third, fourth locations to the point where independent operators can no longer enter the market. (Coincidentally, this is nearly identical to the fiscally-based concern expressed by those opposed to the City of Houston's parking ordinance revisions.)

I am not saying this has happened yet, nor will it definitely happen. But I'd hate for that to be the case. Houston prides itself on ingenuity and eccentricity, but we're also a city driven by the whims of developers and fattened up on pure, unadulterated capitalism. It's a delicate balance -- and one that's served the city well lately -- and one that we'll hopefully maintain as we continue blazing our own defiant path.

In its press release, Lasco Enterprises crowed its accomplishments from the rooftops, as well it should: It was named "one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S." for three years in a row by Inc. The Houston Business Journal listed it as one of the "fastest-growing private companies in Houston" for four years running. It employs 500 people in four cities across Texas. Lasco Enterprises should rightly be proud of itself and its business model.

In my ideal Houston, however, there's room for both the Lascos and the little guys. Not just in the fringes where land is cheap, but in our urban core as well -- and especially in landmark neighborhoods like Montrose. Will our city support them both?

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