Once A Meal, Always A Bibas

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Haritos Bibas is 77 years old, but that isn't stopping the lifelong restaurateur from opening what is -- by his estimation -- probably the 30th restaurant he's owned and operated throughout his lifetime.

Bibas is a familiar name to nearly any Houstonian, especially lifetime residents. Haritos Bibas's first foray into the Houston dining scene came in 1978, when he purchased West Gray diner One's A Meal on a whim during a trip from his home base -- New York City -- to check out our residential real estate market. He kept the name and ran the diner as a neighborhood institution, which he called Bibas' One's A Meal, until he sold it a decade ago. The restaurant moved to its current Westheimer location a few years ago, where it's currently under the stewardship of John Katsimikis, a fellow Greek.

Much like the original One's A Meal, which was located at 2019 West Gray and then moved to 607 West Gray before it was sold, the Bibas restaurants on Memorial have also moved around over time. It was at the current incarnation -- the strikingly angular and aggressively shiny Bibas Greek Pizza -- that I shared one of his famous spinach pizzas with Haritos Bibas, and he told me all about his plans to reopen the Bibas on West Gray, sans the One's A Meal name (it was sold, but the house and land were not), in a month.

But why now? Why at 77 years old? It's simple, Bibas says in his rich Greek accent:

"You have to have something to look forward to, something to look higher."

After One's A Meal left the West Gray location, Bibas looked to fix up the old house that was left behind. To reclaim its lost glory while at the same time creating something entirely new.

"Most restaurants, when they close and the creator is gone, the children cash in and that is it. Because they do not own the real estate," he points out. "But I was smart -- or lucky -- enough to own the real estate, so I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna put my last effort there and make something spectactular.' And I think I outdid myself."

Bibas has great ambition for the new restaurant, which will be called Bibas Diner. So much, in fact, that he claims to have spent more than a million dollars renovating the space and creating an entirely new concept, one that he hopes will compete with not only restaurants in Houston, but restaurants like the ones opening up in the Big Apple. It's a market he knows well, having run restaurants ranging from donut shops to a now-closed diner in Times Square.

"All of a sudden, Manhattan has the best Greek restaurants in the world!" Bibas says, throwing his hands in the air. "All of a sudden, the movie stars are going there! Beautiful! One after the other. I said, this is the chance for me to do what they do in New York. And what they are doing in New York is cooking. Really cooking. Every day, fresh cooking."

The new Bibas Diner has been spiffed up inside and out, with an emphasis on bringing more upscale touches to the classic interior. In one corner, a gleaming espresso machine that costs more than most people's homes sits atop a granite bar. And although the restaurant, like the original One's A Meal, will be open 24 hours, Bibas plans on serving much more than just diner fare.

"I decided to do it and 80 percent of my food is going to be navigated by vegetables, which is healthy, which is natural, which is tasteful -- as long as you know how to do it. The only reason people don't do this is number one, they don't have the knowledge. Number two, they not willing to pay the price."

Bibas plans to bring in a Greek cook to oversee the vast, open kitchen. It gleams with promise, black and white tiles shining next to yards of equally bright stainless steel counters and furdowns. In the middle of the restaurant sits a behemoth of a mahogany table, surrounded by short, red barstools.

"I call this the Bibas Table!" He gestures proudly to the table, which is spotlighted with a row of Tiffany lamps hung overhead. He envisions the table as being a place where people eating alone will meet one another, a place were regulars will come to pass the time over a meal and discuss the events of the day.

On the patio, Bibas has replaced all of the surfaces with the same granite that covers the inside of the restaurant, but the cheerful, multi-colored umbrellas still remain. "They make people happy!" he smiles. "And if you can find something that makes you happy, that's all that matters."

He points to the location for an outdoor grill for one corner of the patio and places where TVs will sit, broadcasting the upcoming Eurovision 2010 contest. All around the perimeter, brightly painted planters are filled with herbs and tomatoes -- the same herbs that Bibas plans to use in the restaurants' dishes.

Upstairs, the plans are a bit looser, but Bibas indicates that he'd like to have Greek music and possibly a nightclub feel. Back downstairs, plans are much more concrete: The main two-thirds of the restaurant will be classic Greek fare at affordable prices in a decidedly nicer setting than Houston is used to at, say, Niko Niko's or One's A Meal. And the remaining third -- tiled in striking black and white with cozy booths lining a wall of windows -- will remain true to form, with round-the-clock service and comfort food.

But don't think that Bibas is stopping there.

In the house adjacent to Bibas Diner (Bibas owns all three houses across the street from Cecil's), he has even more ambitious plans for the future: a grocery store to rival Phoenicia. Will that be open in a month, too?

"No," he laughs. But you can see by the determined twinkle in his eye that if he wanted to open a grocery store in a month -- along with a reincarnated restaurant -- there's nothing anyone could do to stop him.

For more photos from the restaurant, check out our slideshow.

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