Restaurant News

Rest(aurants) in Peace: Notable Closings of 2012

Some restaurants just couldn't wait for the Mayan apocalypse on December 21, 2012, and decided to implode all on their own, while other restaurants simply expired of old age and waning interest in a city that's constantly chasing after the next big thing.

Instead of a toast to the restaurants we'll miss the most (as we did in 2011 and in 2010), this year we're rounding up the most notable restaurant closings of 2012. Because -- let's be honest -- not all of these restaurants are worth missing.

Fire Sale

They say that bad luck happens in threes, and that was certainly the case with three devastating fires that shut down three popular Houston restaurants, starting with the blaze that consumed Late Nite Pie late at night in February. The fire was later determined to be arson, as was the fire that heavily damaged fellow pizza parlor Dolce Vita in May. Jacob Colby Garvin, an alleged homeless man living nearby, was arrested in connection with the fire in June and -- thankfully -- Dolce Vita made a full recovery, reopening in August.

The Broken Spoke, however, wasn't so lucky. A fire that was allegedly set by another homeless man completely destroyed the Belgian restaurant in September. Owner Roy de la Garza decided not to reopen the restaurant, citing competition from his former partner -- Catherine Duwez, who left to open Cafe Brussels not far away -- and being understandably busy in his day job as principal of Milby High School.

Twice Bitten

Some locations are just unlucky for reasons of location, traffic, parking or simply bad vibes. Whatever it is, four restaurants in two different locations came and went over the course of the last year, starting with the ill-fated Oceans. Owners Jorge and Isaac Alvarez took over the old Bistro Vino spot on West Alabama with a big splash, but the ceviches and high-end Mexican seafood dishes didn't quite catch on. Undeterred, the brothers closed Oceans in May and partnered with chef Jonathan Jones -- who'd just left Xuco Xicana -- to reopen the space as Concepcion. But even Jones's talents couldn't save the old white mansion, and Concepcion closed in September after Jones departed for a position at The Monarch at Hotel ZaZa.

Meanwhile, down in Alvin, seafood-happy steakhouse The Barbed Rose received plenty of good press under chef Jason Chaney after opening in 2010, but perhaps the exurb wasn't quite the best market for the upscale restaurant -- it closed in June. Only five short days after closing, the space reopened under the same ownership as Coastal Crossing Grill -- but that wasn't the right fit either, as it closed only a few months later in October.

And just as the old white house on West Alabama may be a permanently jinxed location, the restaurant space at 1001 Studewood may be joining that list -- although it's really too soon to tell. After hosting exponential failure Bedford when it was first built, the spot also lost Stella Sola in one of 2012's biggest restaurant closings after opening to great acclaim in late 2009.

Stella Sola went through three chefs during its short but spectacular run: Jason Gould, Justin Basye and Adam Dorris -- all of whom are incredible talents. When the restaurant closed in May, steakhouse stalwart Ronnie Killen attempted to open a second outpost of Killen's Steakhouse there but was stymied by a War and Peace-length lease that the landlord wanted signed. The space remains vacant for now, and what will move in there remains to be seen.

The Old Guard Stands Down

When it was announced that Guadalajara Bakery would be closing in February, many garments were rent and wails were wept. The little family-owned bakery and taqueria was one of the last vestiges of "old" Washington Avenue, and was set to be replaced with yet another bar after the landlord gave the family 30 days' notice to vacate. Guadalajara was given a stay of execution -- but only for a month -- and closed in March. Nine months later, the space is still empty. And I am still bitter.

But that wasn't the last that Washington Avenue saw of a spate of closings. In addition to the fire at The Broken Spoke, two restaurants noted for their pioneering wine programs closed: Cova Hand-Selected Wines and Block 7 Wine Co.

Both locations of Cova -- including the one on Kirby -- closed in April after rumblings that the wine bar had been in financial trouble for some time after the departure of its previous owner, wine guru Monsterville Horton IV. Six years prior, the original Cova on Washington Avenue was doing so well, its investors couldn't open a second location fast enough. Construction in Rice Village near the second location on Kirby seriously cut into Cova's finances in 2009, and it doesn't seem as if the locations ever fully recovered.

Meanwhile, Block 7 Wine Co. closed much more quietly after four years in business. It was one of the first new-build restaurants to move into the Washington Avenue corridor and was equally lauded for its retail wine shop component (which allowed customers to purchase bottles of wine on premises for a discount) as well as its upscale comfort food. But the retail wine side of the business faltered and closed, and although a big-name chef was hired to redo the menu and re-launch the concept, the turnaround never panned out. Block 7 closed in November.

Another quiet closure of a Houston favorite took place when Pesce -- the seafood restaurant helmed by Mark Holley -- closed in April to make way for....Brio Tuscan Grille. Oh, Houston. Sometimes I just don't get you.

Get a Rope

Trying out a new Tex-Mex concept in Houston is always a risky venture, as so ably demonstrated by three restaurants that flamed out in spectacular fashion this past year. The first, Vida Sexy Tex-Mex, was roundly panned by critics (including the Houston Press) for its rather poorly executed "adults-only" policy, which left the place feeling like a swinger's club that served subpar Mexican food. It closed in November to make way for a second location of Liberty Kitchen. No word on whether or not Liberty Kitchen will keep the pole.

The second, Maggie Rita's, was equally derided upon opening for two chief reasons: (1) taking over several old Ninfa's locations in July and (2) being owned and operated in part by comedian Carlos Mencia, who is neither Texan nor Mexican. (What can I say? People are hardliners here.) Maggie Rita's served none of the old Ninfa's recipes, but served its own ham-fisted versions of Tex-Mex food that somehow cost even more than the already overpriced Ninfa's that came before. One of the "new" Maggie Rita's locations -- this one at Kirby and Richmond -- closed last month.

The third was critical darling Xuco Xicana, owned by Jon Deal and manned by chef Jonathan Jones, which was meant to bring old-school Houston institution El Patio into the 21st century. Xuco Xicana -- or El XX, as it quickly came to be called thanks to a confusing-to-spell-and-pronounce name -- moved into the El Patio location in Midtown in early 2011 and served Jones's take on classic Mexican dishes, including stunning Gulf Coast ceviches and fiery chicken wings. But the new concept never caught on and Jones was asked to leave a year later. He ended up at the equally ill-fated Concepcion, and El XX quietly closed this past summer.

Downtown Demolition

Everyone knows that downtown is a tough market for on-street restaurants, with tunnel traffic sucking most people underground during the day (seriously, folks -- live a little and check out the sunlight once in a freaking while) and many office workers fleeing back to the suburbs at night. And no one knows that more than the slew of restaurants that closed this past year, including Korma Sutra and Bibas Brooklyn Express.

Normally, however, steakhouses do quite well downtown thanks to business lunches and dinners -- but not so for Samba Grille and the Strip House, both of which closed in back-to-back shockers in July. There were rumors that Samba Grille -- which was our 2011 Best of Houston® award-winner for Best Steakhouse -- would reopen in a new space, but that chatter has so far proven untrue.

The Strip House, meanwhile, suffered a rather ignominious death after being locked out by its landlord for non-payment of rent. A Pappas Steakhouse is slated to take its place. Also locked out downtown was Yao Restaurant & Bar, which was one of the original anchors in the still-underpopulated Houston Pavilions.

And just down the block from Korma Sutra, Ziggy's Healthy Grill closed in October after struggling with foot traffic for over a year. The original Ziggy's location in Montrose rebranded itself shortly afterwards as gratifi.

Another rebranding of sorts took place at perennial patio favorite Cabo's, where the Tex-Mex spot closed in May and was quickly taken over by Pepper Jack's (owned by the landlords of the spot, who -- I'm assuming -- thought that simply reopening another Tex-Mex spot in the space would be easy) Initial reports indicate that Pepper Jack's is rocky at best, so I wouldn't be surprised to see it on next year's closings list...

Out of the Ashes

When one door closes, another one opens. Such is the case with the rest of the restaurant closings that round out this year's list. Although some seriously beloved spots were lost in the past 12 months, some very promising spots have stepped in to take their place.

The most promising new addition is that of The Pass & Provisions, which took over the old Gravitas space with style to spare after Scott Tycer's last remaining restaurant (outside of Kraftsmen Cafe) closed abruptly in January. Although the reasons for the closure remain unclear, both parties -- leaseholder Stephen Ross of Liquid Gold Hospitality and Tycer himself -- blamed one another. The most important thing throughout all of this is, of course, the fact that the old Antone's Imports sign -- rescued from the restaurant which first occupied the space at 807 Taft -- is back in the dining room at The Pass & Provisions.

Speaking of Kraftsmen Cafe, Tycer also closed the satellite location of his sandwich shop/bakery in Montrose this past March and decided to focus solely on the newly expanded Heights location that's attached to his commercial bakery. Food truck fellows the Eatsie Boys are moving into the old Montrose space and plan to open within the next few weeks.

Ruggles, the spot where many Houstonians of a certain age enjoyed their first "fancy" meal, closed in February -- two months after the staff walked out during dinner service, accusing owner Bruce Molzan of not paying out their tips. The bright blue building near the corner of Westheimer and Montrose was demolished in October, and will soon be the site of Ryan Hildebrand's new restaurant -- Brande -- when it opens in late 2013.

Another old-school spot -- Dharma Cafe, which had served some of Houston's favorite brunches for over a decade -- closed in March. Dharma Cafe had moved from its previous space on Nance (which is now home to Oxheart) to the Houston Street location a few years back, but the new location didn't seem to draw the same crowds. Catherine Duwez (formerly of The Broken Spoke and Cafe Montrose) opened Cafe Brussels there a few months later in June.

Dragon Bowl -- another restaurant that had been open for nearly a decade (seven years in this case) -- also shut its doors this past November, but owner Ken Bridge didn't leave the space empty for long. After a quick remodel, it has now reopened as craft beer restaurant Witchcraft Tavern & Provision Co.

Another Asian fusion spot that didn't last nearly as long, Nabi, closed in August after opening to excited Montrose crowds in January. Chef and owner Ji Kang has returned to Dallas, although he still has plans to reopen a ramen shop in Houston at some point in the future. Meanwhile, Pistolero's -- a Latin restaurant owned by Shawn Bermudez of Royal Oak and Koagie Hots -- is planned to take over the Nabi space next year.

Elsewhere in Montrose, Zimm's Little Deck closed in July after a year and a half in business (although it seemed a shorter lifespan, somehow). Planned for the mostly outdoor space on Richmond is Brooklyn Athletic Club from Houston restaurateur Shepard Ross.

And finally, in Upper Kirby, two more notable restaurants closed to make way for bigger and better things: the laughable "members-only" Dorsia, which is now home to Hawthorn; and the twinned restaurants -- also twinned in their failure -- Alto Pizzeria and Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar (both from the Schiller-Del Grande Restaurant Group), which are now being transformed into a Del Frisco's Grille. (And although the Schiller-Del Grande group claims that Alto is not closed permanently, a note that's been posted to the door since last week suggests strongly otherwise.)

Stick around tomorrow for a look at the restaurants we're most excited about for 2013.

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Katharine Shilcutt