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. 3. Dong Ting Dong Ting closed in 2003. It was Houston's first cutting-edge Asian restaurant. Dong Ting electrified Houston diners when it opened on Westheimer at Fondren in 1982. The menu offered curried squid and minced squab in lettuce leaves at a time when Asian food in Houston meant chop suey and chow mein.
Founder San Huang moved the successful restaurant downtown to Stuart Street in 1986 and upscaled the menu, the service and the décor. Dong Ting reached its zenith in the late 1980s, and it enjoyed a revival in the 1990s under Chef De Zhong Ding of Shanghai. Kevin Chen, who was a waiter there for many years, took the place over in the end. But it lost most of its business after 9/11 and went out of business shortly thereafter.
4. Bistro Moderne Bistro Moderne closed in 2007 after a brief three years in business. Chef Philippe Schmit, formerly of Le Bernardin in New York, served cutting-edge French food in a gorgeous modern dining room. The restaurant was wildly popular for a little while. It was located in the Hotel Derek, and it was closed when the Derek was sold and a new management team, Crestline Hotels & Resorts Inc. was appointed. Crestline also manages such prestigious properties as the Marriott in Sugar Land and the Stonewall Jackson Conference Center in Virginia. Crestline asked Chef Schmit, who was born in Roanne, France, to come up with a new concept for a restaurant that wasn't French.
5. William's Smokehouse William's Smokehouse burned to the ground in 2007 after more than 20 years in business. Considered one of the top African-American barbecue establishments in the city, William's Smokehouse was known for its consistency. The restaurant once served some of the best ribs in Texas. Sadly, owner Willie Williams choose not to rebuild after the fire.
6. Felix Mexican Restaurant Felix Mexican Restaurant shut down in 2008 after 60 years in business. The restaurant was named for Felix Tijerina, a Mexican immigrant, who worked at The Original Mexican Restaurant on Fannin before opening his first Tex-Mex restaurant for mainstream Anglos in 1929.
When Felix's flagship restaurant at 904 Westheimer opened in 1948, a regular dinner cost 50 cents. In the heyday of the chain, there were six Felix Mexican restaurants in Houston and Beaumont. Tijerina became active in Houston politics and was a four-time national president of LULAC. ("Combination Plates," part two of a six-part history of Tex-Mex.)
Beloved by four generations of Houstonians, the loss of Felix was devastating to many families. Longtime patrons left notes on the front door of the shuttered Tex-Mex institution demanding an explanation. "We need some closure," one note read. Our blog item on the closing of Felix continues to draw reminiscences from mourners.
7. Brennan's of Houston Brennan's of Houston was consumed by flames on the morning of September 13, 2008, at the height of Hurricane Ike's fury. Several people were trapped inside and tragically injured in the blaze. The restaurant's general manager, Alex Brennan-Martin, who had run the Houston restaurant for more than 20 years, established The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund after Hurricane Katrina. The charity raised more than a million dollars to help struggling New Orleans restaurant professionals. It is sadly ironic that Brennan's of Houston ended up as a hurricane victim itself.
Brennan's of Houston opened in 1967 and is a sister restaurant to the New Orleans Brennan family restaurants, which include Commander's Palace. Occupying a historic brick building in Midtown with a huge shaded courtyard, the restaurant had a New Orleans look and feel that made it a favorite of Houston food lovers. Brennan's of Houston pioneered the "Texas Creole" cooking style that employs local ingredients while drawing on the rich cultural traditions of the French-speaking community of Texas.
Owner Alex Martin-Brennan is currently rebuilding Brennan's on the same site and hopes to reopen in 2010.
8. Café Annie Café Annie closed in 2009 after 28 years in business. One of the flagships of the new Southwestern cuisine, it was Houston's best restaurant for many years. Robert Del Grande, who has a PhD in microbiology, took over the kitchen when the restaurant first opened to help his wife's family out while they looked for a chef. His cooking became so popular, the family begged him to stay. Robert Del Grande became the first Houston chef to make a significant impact on the national culinary scene. He received a James Beard Award in 1992.
Inspired by Diana Kennedy's Mexican cookbooks and the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1980s, Del Grande invented startling new dishes based on indigenous South Texas ingredients. He went on to become one of the founding fathers of Southwestern cuisine, along with Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing. Café Annie was a groundbreaking restaurant and the birthplace of such now-familiar Southwestern standards as coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin and crab-and-avocado tostadas.
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The restaurant was located in a high-rise building that was demolished to make room for a bigger high rise. Rather than reopen at a new location under the same name, Del Grande decided to start over with a new concept called Restaurant RDG + Bar Annie. The new restaurant is located within a few hundred feet of the site of the old place and serves a blend of vintage Café Annie creations and new dishes.
9. Bedford Bedford closed in August of 2009. Hollywood celebrity chef Robert Noe Gadsby came to Houston with the Noe Restaurant concept, which was already a hit in the Los Angeles Omni Hotel. He parted ways with the Houston Omni and started Bedford restaurant in the Heights with local investors. The name was taken from the town in England where Gadsby grew up.
The gorgeous 5,500-square-foot restaurant was a bright idea conceived in the feverish delirium that gripped Houston when oil was $150 a barrel. Bedford opened in the fall of 2008, shortly after the mortgage crisis brought down the banking system. Its spirit of extravagance and ambitious culinary concepts was ill-suited to the mood of the time. Gadsby's investors fired the chef and sold the restaurant less than a year after it opened.
Other Notable Closings: La Strada, Bank by Jean-Georges, Wolfgang Puck Café and the Pig Stand.