We knew this day would come. The COVID-19 crisis was predicted to take a harsh toll on the restaurant industry across the country and it has. In a city like Houston, with 7,000 restaurants and arguably the hottest culinary offerings in the nation, the dining restrictions have made a difficult industry nearly impossible to keep alive. We have five major closings this week and some of them have been a part of Houston's food scene for decades.
Still, many places are reopening their dining rooms and a few businesses are even making their debuts this month. Most of them have strict safety guidelines in place but diligence is necessary before making a dining or drinking decision during this pandemic.
Westchase Tavern, 1452 Wilcrest, will open Monday, June 1. It was originally at 10630 Westheimer, but closed at that location October 31, 2019. Owner Ciaran Simon, or Mr. C as he is known around town, has been in the hospitality industry for nearly four decades. He has owned and operated a number of bar concepts over the years including Mr. C's Irish Pub, 1570 S. Dairy Ashford, which reopened May 22 after bar restrictions were lifted.
The new tavern will feature an Art Deco back bar salvaged from a bar in Ashtabula, Ohio that had burned down. There will be 12 taps pouring beers like Guinness, Stella Artois and craft brews, primarily from Texas. For fun, there will be two steel tip dart boards, a Bimini Ring game and a vintage Galaga and Ms. PAC-MAN arcade game.
When sports finally make their comeback, Westchase Tavern is ready with eight large screen screens and NFL Ticket and MLB Satellite. For munchies, there will be soft pretzels, corn dogs and other bar bites.
Hotline Burger, 1010 Prairie, opened in Underground Hall at the beginning of March, right before the pandemic was in full swing. It serves smash-style burgers like the Hotline Burger which is a smashed patty on a buttered Hawaiian roll, topped with sizzling onions, pickles and Hotline's signature sauce. The menu also includes a patty melt, a grilled cheese and fries. Owner Phillip Kim has purposely kept the menu brief in order to focus on quality.
Kim decided to open the burger spot while doing pop ups at local breweries and bars. He was in the midst of transitioning his food truck, Breaking Bao, into a permanent spot at Politan Row and decided to keep himself even busier. The burgers got such a great response, it inspired Kim to open Hotline Burger.
His other concept, Breaking Bao, took up residence at Politan Row in November 2019. Though Breaking Bao is highly rated among lovers of steamed buns, Kim has decided not to reopen the concept at Politan Row. It has been shuttered since March when the COVID restrictions began. Politan Row, itself, has been slowly reopening in phases. Kim is considering pivoting his Politan Row spot to a different concept for the remainder of his tenure at the food hall. Though he may, or may not, continue with the Breaking Bao concept, it will have a new menu and approach regardless. For now, Kim says he is focused on the Hotline brand and has a sister concept planned in the future.
Barry's Pizza, 6003 Richmond, has closed its doors after 37 years. In a Facebook post, owner Barry Childers said, "Well, friends, it's official. COVID 19 killed Barry's. We had a great 37 year run. I'll carry these memories always." The Facebook page also shows a video post of Childers, with General Manager Shawna Heflin, thanking customers for their support over the years. Heflin, according to Childers, has been part of the Barry's Pizza family for 20 years.
When the pandemic caused dine-in restrictions to be put in place March 17, the owners and staff attempted to institute to-go service only for a couple of weeks. According to a Facebook video, they decided to go into hibernation instead. Sadly, that hibernation turned into a permanent shutter for this family-owned restaurant.
Though Facebook comments are nearing 2,000, many people are also pointing the finger at customers who had not been to Barry's in years. In a city where pizza has become increasingly gourmet with high-quality ingredients and imported, custom ovens, an old school pizza joint relies on its regular patrons.
Barry's opened in 1983 and was popular for its Chicago-style deep dish pizza, though hand-tossed was also available. The interior was dark and had not changed much over the decades, but customers enjoyed its family vibe and friendly bar.
Barry's opened a second location in Stafford in 2008 but it closed several years later. There is also a location at Hobby Airport. We have tried calling that store and have gotten no answer. Barry's Pizza has already taken down its website.
Bernie's Burger Bus, 5407 Bellaire, will serve its last burger May 31. Owner Justin Turner had closed his locations in the Heights, Katy and Missouri City during the pandemic and was operating solely out of the flagship Bellaire location. Unfortunately, the generous actions of Houston realtor, David Atkins, who purchased thousands of dollars worth of gift cards and burgers in order to keep Bernie's rolling through the crisis, could not overcome the losses incurred by the dining restrictions.
Turner opened Bernie's Burger Bus as a food truck, in a school bus, in 2010. That led to more buses and eventually, four brick and mortar burger restaurants in the Greater Houston area. Now, with the pandemic keeping customers at home and rising meat prices, Bernie's Burger Bus is ending its journey, at least for the foreseeable future, according to a press release.
Turner admits that he made a fatal mistake in funding the build-out of the most recent location in Missouri City with working capital, leaving no funds for making it through the COVID-19 crisis. Turner says, "Bernie's has been a labor of love. I've learned a lot the hard way but I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and am a better businessperson because of it."
However, this sad news doesn't mean Houston has seen the last of this talented chef and restaurateur. He plans to take time off to rest, recalibrate and spend time with family. Turner got married in April.
Indika, 516 Westheimer, has closed permanently after owner Mickey Kapoor decided that the reboot was not a success, according to CultureMap Houston. Kapoor blames some of the problems on permit issues due to inadequate parking, though Indika originally fared well under chef and restaurateur Anita Jaisinghani, who sold the restaurant in 2017. Kapoor also said that the restaurant's connections with Jaisinghani made it difficult to rebrand. Jaisinghani is currently a finalist for the James Beard Award Best Chef: Texas for her restaurant Pondicheri.
Kapoor bought the restaurant in 2018. He also owns Khyber North Indian Grill on Richmond.
The building was listed for sale April 20, as reported by EaterHouston.
Poitin Bar and Kitchen, 2313 Edwards, has served its last meal, chef Dominick Lee told CultureMap. The restaurant from Irish native Ian Tucker opened in May 2018. Tucker was a successful restaurateur with his The Exchequer concepts in Dublin but marriage to a Houstonian brought him to Houston where he opened Balls Out Burger in June 2017. It shuttered in April 2019.
Executive chef Lee helped to earn Poitin a spot on Texas Monthly's Best Restaurants Texas 2019 along with Houston restaurants Nancy's Hustle, Indigo and several of Chris Shepherd's restaurants. Lee said that he plans to return to his native New Orleans and open a new restaurant.
The Tasting Room, 1101-18 Uptown Park Boulevard, will close its doors May 30 after 17 years. Its sister location at CityCentre will remain open. Founder Jerry Lasco of Lasco Enterprises said in a press release, "In the wake of the pandemic, although we have tried many scenarios, it has not been possible to keep the space running at limited capacity."
Instead, Lasco intends to pivot the company into a retail wine club called The Black Door Wine Club named for the early days when guests would retrieve their large wine orders from The Tasting Room's black backdoor.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Lasco, Chef Beto Guitierrez and the rest of the team have been able to provide more than 2,000 free meal kits to hospitality and restaurant workers in need, as we reported here in the Houston Press.
The wine cafe is planning a Farewell Soiree May 30 from noon to midnight with Chef Beto grilling steaks, chops and shrimp. There will be specialty tacos and The Tasting Room's pizzas available, too. There will also be drink specials and live music.
Bar Victor, 4321 Montrose, reopened May 22 at 25 percent capacity. The swanky bar is now under new local ownership and management. The overall design is the same but new elements have been introduced like customizable LED lighting and a completely new bar menu with drinks inspired by popular culture such as the floral My Fair Lady or a gin-soaked cocktail, The Purple Rain. There is a new midnight blue, carved wood deejay platform, too. Champagne bottle service is new to the menu, as well.
The management is hoping that the public sees Bar Victor as a classy, relaxing den for conversation and hanging out for happy hour or before and after dinner. Though it will be more casual before 8 p.m., there will be a "dress to impress' dress code after 8.p. which means no shorts, flip-flops, sandals or ball caps.
La Lucha, 1801 N. Shepherd, reopened May 18. Restaurateur Ford Fry made the decision to keep all three of his Houston restaurants closed until he felt that it was safe for his staff to reopen for dine-in service. Both La Lucha and its Tex-Mex sister Superica next door will open the dining rooms. Make reservations by phone or online for parties of six or less for La Lucha. Superica does not accept reservations. The bar and patio will be available for walk-ins only. To-go orders will still be available with online ordering. La Lucha has added some new menu items including a tuna tostada and an oak roasted flat iron steak.
State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer, reopened May 18. Ford Fry's first Houston restaurant opened in River Oaks in 2015. As with his other restaurants, employees will be required to wear face coverings and gloves and undergo health screenings daily while the guidelines set out by the Texas Restaurant Association will be strictly adhered to.
Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen, 2327 Post Oak Boulevard, reopened May 20 with some high-tech changes. Guests must make reservations via the Yelp No Wait app and wait in their vehicles until the app notifies them that their table is ready. Masks are required when entering and exiting the restaurant unless seated at the tables. K&Z's is using a virtual menu which guests can download to their smart phones instead of disposable or regular menus. The management asks that guests limit their table time to one hour and fifteen minutes. This will allow for more hungry customers to be able to enjoy the deli's super-sized sandwiches and over-the-top desserts.
The Buffalo Speedway location is still temporarily closed.
Prego, 2520 Amherst, returned to its dinner service May 22. For 30 years, the restaurant has been serving its hand-crafted pastas and classic Italian dishes under the leadership of owner Chef John Watt. Watt's extensive resume includes mentoring a young Hugo Ortega in the early days of Backstreet Cafe and playing guitar with The Gap Band among many other artistic and culinary achievements. He's a renaissance man, no doubt.
The restaurant will be open daily from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and reservations are highly recommended . The menu will be pared down some but there will still be a variety of soups, salads, grilled seafood, steaks and housemade pastas on offer. As with the other restaurants under the H Town Restaurant Group umbrella, guests are asked to please wear face masks when entering the restaurant until seated at table and again when leaving the table.
Curbside pick-up and delivery will still be available.
Riel, 1927 Fairview, reopened May 26 after chef Ryan Lachaine and his team worked for weeks to prepare the staff with training and safety orientation. Much of the original menu will be available along with some new items the crew has been working on. Riel's Butter Burgers will now be on the menu daily. Reservations are required for now with parties limited to six guests. Curbside takeout will also be available.
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Local Group Brewing, 1504 Chapman, reopened for dine-in and drink-in service May 22. The brewpub and restaurant opened February 28 of this year, less than a month before the pandemic restrictions hit. Owners James "Huggy Bear" Wolfe, Michael Steeves and Todd Donowar have created a food menu with executive chef Jeff Samoska that would eclipse many fine-dining restaurants while still offering a bounty of bar bites like duck confit poutine and the Bratzel, a locally made sausage wrapped in its house pretzel dough and served with caramelized onions and an ale mustard.
The brewery has turned out a new version of its Sparkle Motion Ale that has a hint of green tea, berry and hibiscus flavors. It's called Hint O' Summer and it's a one-keg feature. There are also four Hill Country wines on tap from Kuhlman Cellars and Duchman Family Winery. They can be ordered in 16-ounce tall boys to-go with food purchase.
The interior will be open at 25 percent capacity and the patio will be open for full capacity while keeping tables six feet apart. It will use disposable menus and there will now be full table service, so guests must be seated before being served. Take-out and online ordering will still be available and orders can be brought out to cars if customers call when they arrive.