The Great Restaurant Sale

With all due respect to Pet Clark, downtown is not really where it's happening these days. Between the crumbling infrastructure the city is always repairing, the beautifying Cotswold Project and now the Metropolitan Transit Authority's light rail track, it's a daily battle to find the right detour. Last year Prairie Street, the Cotswold poster child, finally reopened with lovely cobblestones and slanted street parking. Last week Metro started tearing it up again for light rail.

"They've had some serious problems down there," says former Houston Ballet principal Barbara Bears. She should know; Bears and her husband, Garrett Gaddois, were original investors in Solero, an early downtown nightspot that opened on Prairie in 1997. The couple sold their shares in the restaurant a year ago. Chuck Russell, one of Solero's founders, who now owns Farrago in Midtown, concurs on downtown's demise. Referring to his new location just a dozen or so blocks away, he says, "I don't like to consider myself downtown because of the stigma."

George Biggs believed so much in the revitalization of downtown as a nighttime destination that he opened three watering holes on Main Street. But he's pretty blunt about the picture now: "Business sucks. If I didn't have to go down there, I wouldn't go. If you can find parking, then you have to walk through the mud." Biggs owns Prague, 410 and Jones Bar. He closed Jones Bar for renovations and has decided not to reopen it until the construction clears up. His only property doing well right now is 410, which has an entrance in the back. "You don't have to walk down Main street," he says.

But there is a lone voice of optimism in the asphalt wilderness. Bill Sadler, restaurateur, raconteur and all-around colorful character, has just bought a majority partnership in Solero, with founder and award-winning chef Arturo Boada. And Sadler is to restaurants what consultant Dan McClung is to politics: People watch which side he throws in on. Sadler built up the River Cafe, salvaged Cafe Noche and opened Moose Café -- all Montrose spots, all restaurants he got out of before they started to have problems. So why abandon the Montrose and take a risk downtown?

"I love this place," he says with a twang. "I just fell in love with it the first time I saw Solero. The wide-plank wood floors, the cracked plaster walls, I feel like I'm in Europe or New York City." True love aside, Sadler and Boada are being conservative. "We don't do lunch," he says, "because the people are staying in the tunnels because of the air quality from all the construction, and we're only open five nights a week. Plus, we're pretty small, and we're older than some of the other places, so I know we can hang on two more years until it's all done."

That may be sound thinking, especially since the Montrose area doesn't seem to be doing particularly well right now, either. Tom Williams's Fox Diner, the newer, larger incarnation sprung from the Taft location, abruptly closed its doors earlier this month. And Sadler's old stomping ground, the Moose Café, which chef Charlie Watkins took over and turned into the World Café, also closed suddenly for a redo. The world theme just wasn't cutting it. No word yet on when and how it will reopen.

But there is one area that's bustling. "I was a bit worried at first," says Bears about investing in Midtown, "but you've got a lot of walk-up traffic, and there is parking." Bears and Gaddois have teamed up with their former Solero partner Chuck Russell to invest in Farrago and in a soon-to-open bar in the area. Russell, who sold out of Solero in 1999, thinks Midtown -- which is seeing more and more apartments and lofts opening -- and the Washington Avenue strip near Waugh, are the up-and-coming hot spots. "At least for the next two years, until downtown gets its shit together," he says.

No one doubts that downtown will come back, eventually. The question is who can hang on until the construction is finished. Biggs laments several recent downtown bankruptcies. "I think it will all come back," he says, "but it won't be the same players. Those people who came in in '95 and '96 are being run out. I think what we'll see are the big names, the city slickers and corporate businesses."

Sadler agrees that downtown is currently a buyer's market and that the spaces, most of them finished out and ready to reopen, will be snapped up as soon as the streets start to improve. "But if this turns into franchise city," he says, "I'm out of here."

Older, established spots like Solero and La Carafe have an advantage, says Sadler. They've paid off most of their opening debt, and they have a group of regulars -- in Solero's case, a twentysomething crowd that gathers after 11 p.m., when the traffic is minimal and the streets are a little easier to navigate. "They're keeping us afloat," he says.

But each day gets harder for the newer spots. Sources say that as many as three Main Street-area nightclubs may be forced to close within weeks. "I wouldn't doubt it for a second," says Sadler. "We hear new rumors every day, and they usually turn out to be true."

But, as always, Sadler puts a happy spin on things. "You know, the legend is that Sam Houston used to get dead drunk and fall down in the mud on Main Street," he says. "So we're just reliving frontier days. Hey, maybe we should have 'Frontier Nights' and people can experience history!"

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Marene Gustin