This Week's Cafe Review: What's the Deal With Grace's?

Lately I keep getting that question.

"What's the deal with Grace's, anyway?"

I'm never quite sure how to answer, never sure if my friends are looking for stats (hours, etc.), a back story, or an answer to why the menu is so--as one of my buddies described it--bipolar. The first two questions I can answer. The third, well, I'm as confused as you are.

Since Grace's opened, a lot has been made about the fact that Johnny Carrabba, successful restaurateur and owner of Carrabba's and Mia's, chose to open a large, expensive restaurant on a multi-million dollar lot on Kirby Drive, and it's not even Italian. The restaurant is named after his grandmother, Grace, and reflects all the local cuisines that shape the Houston culinary scene.

Because the menu contains Asian food, Cajun food, southern food, Mexican food and one pasta dish, it's a little, well, befuddling to say the least. Add to that the $17 price tag on a hamburger or the $28 crab cake, and people have been less than kind about poor Grace's. Recent write ups by other critics have been downright harsh, causing some area diners to jump to Grace's defense, while others applaud the taking down of the man, representative of all upperclass snootiness on Kirby Drive.

I'm all for honesty and sometimes harshness in food criticism. If you read my Mr. Peeples review, you know that. But in this case, as much as it pains me, I've got to defend Grace's too.

It is not an incredible restaurant. It will not go on anyone's list of the best new restaurants of 2014. It will not make national news. But it's not bad.

I didn't have anything there--and I went three times and ate a lot--that was downright bad. I skipped the Mexican-inspired offerings though, and only tried one fairly unimpressive Asian dish. Mostly, I stuck to the southern, soul food-type entrées and appetizers, and I was pretty pleased.

I think what might put people off initially are the prices. Grace's is not cheap. But it's not aiming to cater to a crowd of folks like me on a journalist's salary. It's drawing in the River Oaks and Upper Kirby elite, and, unlike Carrabba's, it's challenging those who might not otherwise find themselves eating things like yellowtail carpaccio or cioppino, a seafood stew. Sure, there are still the short ribs and baked potato that some of the older set might be used to, but there's also enough to make people feel a little more, you know, continental. Even if none of the Asian dishes at Grace's is as good as what you might find in Chinatown.

Carrabba stated that he wanted to open a place that would allow people craving a variety of disparate items to come to one spot to satisfy them all. In that way, mostly, he's succeeded. And I don't think it's always fair to judge a restaurant purely on its usefulness to myself as a critic. Is it my choice for dining? No. But I give it credit for being packed every night and satisfying others. Just because I don't like McDonald's, that doesn't mean it doesn't have a place in Houston dining.

As I've argued for other restaurants before, Grace's is useful. It succeeds where it intended to--not in being the best at everything, but in satisfying in many ways. Carrabba maintains that Carrabba's, open since 1986, is still a work in progress. Clearly, Grace's is too. I'd like to return in several months to see what, if anything, has changed. To see how Grace's will, inevitably, evolve.

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Kaitlin Steinberg