The Eating...Our Words 100: Dan Tidwell of Treebeards on Downtown Houston's Past, Present and Future

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If you've set foot downtown at any point in the last 30 years, there's a strong chance you've eaten at Treebeards. Ever since it opened on Market Square in 1978 between what its Web site calls "a peep show arcade and a rowdy bar," Treebeards has served some of the city's favorite Cajun food from some of downtown's most interesting locations. Along with restaurants like Ragin Cajun and the now-closed Magnolia Bar & Grill, Treebeards more or less introduced Houston to Cajun food (or is it vice-versa?).

The current location of Treebeards on Market Square occupies the city's second-oldest building, the Baker-Travis building constructed in 1861. And the Treebeards I grew up going to at lunch with my father is in the Cloisters of the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral. There are now five locations throughout downtown, each of them still serving up the pitch-perfect red beans and rice that is still made from Dan Tidwell's own recipe.

Tidwell owned Treebeards with his partner Jamie Mize from 1978 until 2010, when the team sold it to Matt Rowden and Jolie Stinneford, two of their employees. Tidwell still works at Treebeards, however, and -- along with Mize -- still sees that the restaurants they founded serve the same excellent food day in and day out.

What does he do?

Despite selling Treebeards two years ago, Tidwell still works at the restaurant today.

Why does he like it?

"It allows me to be creative," says Tidwell. "Everything from the food to the look and vibe of the restaurants. I also like a project that can be started, executed and completed by day's end. Every day is a fresh start."

Tidwell has lived and/or worked downtown since 1978. "During that period," he says, "I have seen architecturally significant buildings constructed, historically significant buildings such as The Rice, City Hall and Julia Ideson renovated, great public art, new and improved parks, more emphasis on Buffalo Bayou in the central business district, an expanded Theater District, sports venues, improved roadways, lighting and planting."

"That is a lot in just 34 years," says Tidwell. "The Downtown Management District is an amazing organization for promoting downtown and keeping it looking good."

What inspires him?

"I'm inspired by the restaurants when it all is in sync," says Tidwell. "Food, staff, service and atmosphere. I am always inspired by the staff -- especially the folks who have been here for years. Their loyalty and hard work are unbelievable."

Tidwell says that he's also inspired by those of his "employees who work two jobs, have tremendous obligations but can laugh and have fun."

"I'm inspired by March and October when the weather changes," he finishes, "people are out on the streets and attitudes are better."

What doesn't inspire him?

Tidwell doesn't mince words when it comes to the changes he thinks are negative for his dearly loved downtown.

"We lost too many buildings because of a lousy historical-preservation mindset and weak ordinances," he says. "As a result, there are too many surface parking lots which make a bleak cityscape with gaps that separate districts. Not only is it visually unappealing, it discourages a walkable city. Those architecturally significant high-rises are beautiful from a distance but lacking soul at street level. I am disappointed that the city, the developers and the architects did not provide street-level business opportunities that would had encouraged more folks to walk the streets."

Tidwell continues: "I do not like the silly decorative lighting displays downtown and the water features that are scattered around the North end of downtown that require so much maintenance and that are so often 'off line.' That money could be used for more lighting, adding more trees for shade and increasing security. I don't like Houston Pavilions. Hopefully, that project will provide HCC with a nice downtown campus someday. Those businesses should have been in the Historic District, and conventioneers would have been more impressed. And historic buildings would have been utilized."

As for the light rail, Tidwell says that he "will like the train if it eventually goes somewhere. The system is too small and the impact on freeway traffic is not enough for the disruptions it causes."

If not here, then where?

Tidwell doesn't ever plan to leave -- at least permanently. "I like Houston and Texas and my friends are here," he says. "But I also like IAH and how easy it is to go anywhere from Houston. Travel is great, but it's good to come home."

"I am lucky in travel," Tidwell says. "My parents are adventurous and we have been all over this country in the last 20 years. I also travel internationally with friends every year. I visited South America in August, Istanbul and Italy last year, Spain the year before that, and Africa before that. I still have a lot to see. I still love to come home."

What's next?

"No idea," Tidwell admits. "I sold the restaurants two year ago and will continue to be a part of Treebeards for several months. After that I have no plan. I love that and know I am a lucky guy."

He does, however, have a vision for downtown.

"Incentives for downtown residential development is a must and finally being realized," Tidwell says. "Residential will encourage retail -- not the other way around. The new High School for the Performing Arts locating to downtown is exciting, but this would be even more exciting and make a lot more sense if it were located next to our incredible Theater District. There is a vacant block available between the Chronicle building and Market Square Park and the powers that make these things happen could make this happen."

"It is too late for zoning in Houston," says Tidwell. "It is aggravating at times, but I realize that is what makes Houston unique. Despite the things that I think could be improved, I like Houston a lot. Houston has little attitude, lots of soul and for the most part, an accepting population. That combination provides opportunities and ambition."

The Eating...Our Words 100:

- Kiran Verma, Executive Chef and Owner of Kiran's Restaurant & Bar - Catherine Rodriguez, Pastry Chef at The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa - Jody Stevens, Owner and Cake Designer of jodycakes - Bobby Heugel, Owner of Anvil, Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant and OKRA's Charity Saloon - Renatta Lindsey, The Taste Contestant and Houston Home Cook - Enrique Bravo of Pollo Bravo on How Selling Chicken Helped Him Realize His American Dream - Sean Beck, Sommelier Extraordinaire - Brooksy Smith, Owner of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers - Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities - Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op - Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef - James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger - Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation - Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's - Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas - Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger - Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's - Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor - Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata - Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers - Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile - Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House

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