1. Maxim's Maxim's closed in January 2001. It was possibly the most influential restaurant in Houston's culinary history. It was the only upscale restaurant in the city for decades and its French cooking and quasi-French dining room became the very definition of fine dining for generations of Houstonians. Maxim's was named the "Restaurant of the Century" by Texas Monthly in the magazine's 1999 "Best of the Century" issue.
When the first fancy restaurant in Houston opened at the corner of Lamar and Milam in 1949, no one thought it odd that owner Camille Bermann had swiped the name from the famous restaurant in Paris. Camille Bermann's Maxim's of Houston later relocated to Greenway Plaza on Richmond.
Maxim's catered to Houston's new oil tycoons, like John De Menil, with fawning service and lavish prices. The restaurant had an extensive wine list and maintained "private club" status so patrons could store their booze in lockers. Bermann and many other American restaurant owners of the 1950s decorated their dining rooms in the "fin de siecle" bordello style. The décor, which included flocked red wallpaper, ornate chandeliers and cheap copies of French paintings, came to be known in the U.S. as the "French whorehouse" look.
Bermann, who the rich oilmen nicknamed "Frenchie," had trained under Georges Auguste Escoffier, and he brought French wine sauces and ingredients like endive to Houston for the first time. But at lunchtime, the menu always included a few meat-and-potatoes dishes, including chicken-fried steaks, for rough-and-tough wildcatters. Bermann became famous as the apostle of French cuisine, but he once remarked that it was the chicken-fried steaks that made him rich.
Maxim's never modernized its décor or menu, and it never found a younger audience. In the 1970s, Houston's first French restaurant lost its River Oaks patrons to a new generation of Italian "Rat Pack" restaurants like Tony's. Camille's son, Ronnie Bermann, sold the business to the Pappas organization, but plans to reopen never materialized after the restaurant closed its doors. While few Houston food lovers remember the place anymore, Maxim's stamp on Houston fine dining is indelible.
2. Leo's Mexican Restaurant In 2001 Leo's Mexican Restaurant closed its doors, to the chagrin of Tex-Mex connoisseurs and ZZ Top fans. In his younger years, founder Leo Reynosa, Sr. rode with Pancho Villa. When he opened the restaurant on Shepherd Drive in 1942, he decorated the walls with photos of Villa and relics from the Mexican Revolution. The menu recounted Leo's adventures as a revolutionary.
In 1993, the restaurant moved to 77 Harvard Street, after the landlord of the Shepherd location tripled the rent. Leo died two years later. The lease on the new location, which was just off Washington Avenue, expired in 2001. Leo's sons Felix and Robert Reynosa closed when they couldn't find another property they could afford in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. More than a thousand customers signed a list asking to be notified if the restaurant found a new location.
Another Reynosa brother, the late Leo Jr., once worked for ZZ Top when the bad toured. Band member Billy Gibbons became a loyal customer of the restaurant. While the restaurant may be gone, a Leo's Tex-Mex feast is forever immortalized in the double-truck photograph that graces the inside cover of ZZ Top's 1973 Tres Hombres album.