Houstonians have blissfully short memories. Blame it on our lack of investment in our city's history, as we constantly tear down and rebuild. Blame it on the petrochemicals. Blame it on Twitter. Regardless of the reason, we tend to forget things as soon as another shiny new toy comes along -- and the ongoing gentrification of Montrose and Lower Westheimer is no exception.
Ever since news of newcomers such as Uchi, Underbelly, Hay Merchant and El Real Tex-Mex was announced, Lower Westheimer has been spotlighted as a new "restaurant row" in Houston (and not just by CultureMap and the lovely Marene Gustin, who also writes for the Press). Only problem is, it's been a restaurant row for many years now.
And while some people may hail folks like Bobby Heugel and the Caswell-Floyd team as the harbingers of this new restaurant row, the truth is that -- as hardworking and talented as those men are -- it's restaurateurs like Mark Cox, Marco Wiles, Anita Jaisinghani, Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega who are really behind this "gentrification," which has been in the works for quite a long time.
Five years ago, when USA Today traveled to Houston and spotlighted our city as "a haven for hip cuisine," it was Cox and Wiles's restaurants that were given main mention -- the first two to come to this stretch of Westheimer. In fact, three of the six restaurants noted by the paper were on Lower Westheimer: Mark's American Cuisine, Da Marco and Indika.
"My whole idea was to open my own place," said Wiles one afternoon over sweaty glasses of water in the butter-colored dining room of his flagship restaurant, Da Marco. Like Cox, he's a veteran of the Vallone empire of restaurants, an executive chef who dreamed of slicing off his own piece of the pie. " I wanted to open an Italian restaurant that would succeed in Italy."
That restaurant, Da Marco, opened in early 2000, taking the place of Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant that had never seen quite enough traffic at its odd, triangular location on Westheimer and Ridgewood. The last time the spot had seen a high-end restaurant was when it was the intentionally bizarre Los Troncos back in the swinging 1960s, serving an odd menu of beef stroganoff, chicken curry and huachinango a la Veracruzana.
Two years prior, Mark's had opened just down the street, more or less kicking off the gentrification as we now know it. The upscale Mark's was doing incredibly well at the gates of Montrose, housed in a renovated 1920s-era church that had previously held a head shop and a goth/punk clothing store called Dream Merchant.
Yet Wiles knew he faced long odds in getting Da Marco to succeed as well. The few upscale restaurants in Montrose at this point were mostly vestiges of the Manfred Jachmich-dominated,1970s-era Continental dining days past, places like SoVino and Ruggles. And the days of people cruising Westheimer on the weekends, packed like a party from Dunlavy down to Elgin, were mostly over by the early 1990s.
"It had to be small enough," he said. "The rent had to be low enough to survive." Wiles quickly went on to win endless accolades for Da Marco's keenly authentic Italian food and service (many of those from the Houston Press).
Two years later, Hugo's, from husband-and-wife team Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega, opened in 2002. And Anita Jaisinghani's Indika opened just down the road in 2006, moving to Lower Westheimer from a small house in Memorial where it had originally opened in 2001. The solidification of Lower Westheimer as a destination for inventive, upscale cuisine was underway. And soon Wiles was focused on solidifying his own foundations in the area.
"Five-and-a-half years later, I had an idea for a pizzeria," he said. Dolce Vita was born in 2006, garnering the same praise as his original restaurant. It took the space of the old Marrakech restaurant at Westheimer and Whitney. And in 2009, Wiles revamped the late, lamented Cafe Montrose and turned it into Vinoteca Poscol. It won Best New Restaurant from Robb Walsh that same year.
Despite this, Wiles doesn't see himself as a pioneer or an innovator. "I'm not one to go into an area just because," he demurred. He was more interested in the charm of the old buildings that house Da Marco and Dolce Vita, in the cheap rent at Poscol, which is next to a washateria in a strip center. "I took a chance," on those places, he said. "But that's the charm of it."
He also seems reluctant to acknowledge other up-and-coming empires along the street that he and Cox helped to pave, when asked what he thinks of El Real and Little Bigs (both owned by the Caswell-Floyd cooperative), or of Anvil, Underbelly and Hay Merchant.
"Who's Bobby Heugel?" Wiles said, as much a rhetorical question as a dismissive response. His carefully composed poker face revealed nothing.
Wiles's attitude is certainly counter to that of the collaborative environment encouraged by Heugel and his cohorts -- Chris Shepherd, who'll be opening Underbelly; Kevin Floyd, who'll be opening Hay Merchant, and David Beuhrer, who'll be opening Blacksmith, a coffee shop next door. That type of idealistic, I'm-okay-you're-okay collaboration isn't always necessary, although it's come to represent a hallmark of Houston's current crop of young chefs and restaurateurs.
Instead, it's a sort of unplanned, competitive type of collaboration that's driven the Mark's and Hugo's and Indikas and Da Marcos of Houston to succeed. And while this sort of capitalist collaboration might be overlooked these days, it's still as vital as ever.
So what if your great nemesis opens a restaurant right next door to yours, as is the case of Tony Vallone's now-closed Caffe Bello next door to Dolce Vita? This kind of organic growth forces restaurants to step up or perish. And it's ultimately good for business in the long run as a new batch of restaurants flock to Lower Westheimer.
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With a horde of new restaurants planned for this year as well as the next -- look for homegrown talent like L'Olivier from old Tony's chef Olivier Ciesielski and out-of-town sushi legend Uchi from Austin coming soon -- one thing's certain: Houston's continuing evolution as a brilliantly under-the-radar dining city will be as fascinating to watch as Lower Westheimer's seemingly limitless growth.
Check out our year-by-year (albeit not comprehensive) maps of Lower Westheimer's restaurant growth from 1997 to today.