I think that 2012 is shaping up to be Houston's year, after a long 2011 featuring false starts, delayed openings, unexpected closings and failures to launch.
That's not to say that 2011 didn't have its perks: Look for our list of the year's best new restaurant later this week. But it came with its share of disappointments, too.
Byrd's Market flies the coop: After what seemed like eons, Rusty Powers finally opened Byrd's Market, which many downtowners hoped would be the great grocery store they'd lacked for years. The location at Main and Prairie was perfect: right on the light rail line and close to the action, in a beautifully redone historic building with high ceilings and plenty of light. But the space was utilized poorly, with most of the footprint devoted to Powers's cafe instead of the tiny grocery and deli section. Less than a year after opening, the produce bins were devoid of fruits and veggies and the shelves carried only gourmet dried goods that could be procured anywhere else in town. The food in the cafe was never very good either, and Byrd's Market finally gave up the ghost in July. The silver lining to this cloud? The much more established Georgia's Farm to Market is moving in, and bringing real groceries with it.
Cafe Moustache takes us for a ride: When longtime Montrose restaurateur Manfred Jachmich closed So Vino in the summer of last year, there were hopes that whatever he opened next in the space would be better than the expensive yet downtrodden food he'd been serving at So Vino for the past few years. Instead, we got Cafe Moustache, which offered different food -- "French" instead of "Italian" -- yet it was still as downtrodden and expensive as ever. Not surprisingly, Cafe Moustache closed too. But that's where the good news ends: Jachmich reportedly intends to team up with Ruggles chef Bruce Molzan when Molzan opens his new pizza place in the old So Vino location next year. Whether that will actually happen or not is up for debate, however...
Restaurants take their staff for a ride: 2011 was the year the servers fought back against unscrupulous managers, most notably when Ruggles staff walked out on a busy Saturday night earlier this month after chef and owner Bruce Molzan had failed to pay them overtime and tips for months. Several employees filed a lawsuit against the restaurant, which joined lawsuits from servers across the city as Brasserie 19, Reef, Bombay Pizza and Blue Water Seafood were all hit with similar lawsuits of their own.
Greatfull Taco dead heads: In a flame-out that resembled that classic Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, First Fig, owner Paul West's candle most definitely did not last the night. His restaurant, Greatfull Taco, was a deliberate homage to Torchy's Tacos, which would not franchise to West. His solution? Open a better version of it here in Houston, complete with the craziest press release I've ever personally received. The redesigned building at 2411 S. Shepherd was beautiful, and the food -- standard "gourmet taco" fare -- was far better than expected. But soon, Greatfull Taco lost its chef, and shortly after, its lease. In a final ironic twist, Torchy's Tacos moved into the very same space that once aspired to be bigger and better than Torchy's itself.
The Brownstone has foundation issues: For a very long time, The Brownstone was one of Houston's swankiest hidden gems. The upscale, out-of-the-way River Oaks restaurant on Virginia was filled with antiques -- and in later years, this description extended to the food and clientele as well. When it closed a few years ago, no one was terribly surprised. But when it reopened this year, there was great hope that The Brownstone would reclaim its former glory, with Tony's alum Chef Olivier Ciesielski creating a menu for the new joint and a cute cocktail program in place. Those hopes were short-lived, though, as The Brownstone never quite lived up to its promise and closed a few months later. Bruce Molzan -- whose name we're starting to associate with some pretty miserable locations -- said that he hoped to move into the location and start a new restaurant. But, as stated above, he's kind of busy right now...
Mai's misses the mark: We all know the story by now. Houston landmark Mai's burns down tragically in 2010, reopens to great acclaim in 2011. There are many, many, many people in Houston who are thrilled with Mai's rebirth. I just wasn't one of them.
Dolce Vita bids arrividerci to The Woodlands: In a bid to expand his restaurant empire far beyond its Montrose confines, Chef Marco Wiles (who also owns Da Marco, Vinoteca Poscol and Dolce Vita) opened a second location of his highly acclaimed pizza place -- Dolce Vita -- in The Woodlands. The refined, deeply Italian-style pizza didn't go over well with suburban customers who were requesting Ranch dressing for their pizza bones and Skee-ball for their kids, and the ill-advised restaurant closed a few short months after opening.
Trader Joe's goes north: When the restaurant gods close a door, sometimes the grocery store gods come along and open an even bigger one. That's what happened -- sort of -- when Trader Joe's dashed thousands of Houstonians' hopes and dreams by choosing The Woodlands instead of the much-discussed Alabama Theater as its first Houston-area location. But what's bad news for Houstonians was great news for Woodlanders, who are busy preparing to welcome the new grocery store with open arms.
Freetail Brewing hightails it out of Houston: Houston has lacked a strong brewpub scene for years, which was only exacerbated by the closure of the city's last brewpub: Two Rows in Rice Village. So when it was announced that San Antonio's own Freetail Brewing would be opening a second location in downtown Houston, the beer community rejoiced. Their excitement was short-lived, however, when plans were scrapped a mere two months later. Freetail owner Scott Metzgar blamed the failure to launch on being unable to secure funding, but there's good news yet: a homegrown brewpub, City Acre, plans to open next year.
TABC troubles continue: Although the lobbying efforts were great, House Bills 602 and 660 -- which would have significantly loosened the ridiculously tight reins TABC has on beer producers -- failed to pass the Texas Legislature. However, good news came in a recent ruling in favor of Austin-based brewery Jester King, which won a lawsuit it filed against the TABC. A federal judge ruled that the TABC's restrictions on allowing breweries to advertise where their beers are sold were unconstitutional. Moreover, Texas-brewed beers can now actually be called beer.
Chefs play musical chairs: One of the great things about Houston's young chefs is their tendency to never stop learning, to never stop gathering new ideas or expanding into new territory. However, that also means that 2011 was the year that some of our best chefs left their posts in midstream. The stories from the past year alone are nearly endless: Stella Sola is swimming along under Adam Dorris's stewardship, but we still miss Justin Basye's presence in the kitchen he founded. Yelapa foundered after chefs L.J. Wiley and Brandon Fisch both left in succession. Fans of modern cooking were left at loose ends when Randy Rucker and Chris Leung departed from Bootsie's. Michael Kramer cycled through both The Tasting Room and Felix 55 in the span of one year. Michael Dei Maggi's partnership with a newly revamped Dragon Bowl lasted for only a few short months. Chris Shepherd left Catalan, which closed with his departure. Jason Hauck left Soma just as the restaurant started making some of the best ramen in town. Steve Marques left The Burger Guys, but happily resurfaced at Max's Wine Dive. Ditto Lyle Bento, who left Feast but ended up running The Modular with Josh Martinez, and Greg Lowry, who left Voice but ended up at Triniti with Ryan Hildebrand.
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It's these last three examples which give us great, great hopes for 2012, though: Almost every single one of these talented chefs has remained in Houston throughout it all, with many of them set to open new projects in the next year or tackle new posts at equally exciting restaurants.
And, really, if that's all we have to complain about, we have it pretty good, Houston.