What's the Deal With Upper Kirby?

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Nearly every evening I run up and down Kirby Drive, taking in the sights (elderly couples ambling into Carrabba's; valets standing around bored in West Ave), the sounds (car horns honking as drivers make abrupt right turns into the Whole Foods parking lot) and the smells (garlic, fry oil, diesel fuel). It's a strange little strip of road between Richmond and Westheimer, but it's what I've come to call home in the 11 months I've been living in Houston. It's changed a lot since I first moved in, primarily thanks to a handful of exciting new restaurants that have opened there recently.

But in the last week, six Kirby businesses have decided to shutter for good, and there's been talk for months that a few struggling West Ave restaurants aren't far behind. What's up with the rapid evolution of my 'hood?

First, the good: Since I moved in, I've witnessed the opening of Pico's Mex-Mex, Luna Pizzeria, Grace's, Nara, Trenza and Local Foods. Pondicheri is planning on opening a bakery sometime this summer. It's clearly a desirable neighborhood for restaurants.

Pico's moved from outside the Loop to a massive spot at the corner of Richmond and Kirby that people speculated was too expensive a property for any restaurant to make a go of it. But Pico's is packed every evening, and the bar--a great source of income for many restaurants--is doing a bang-up business. On any given weeknight, there will be standing room only around the margarita mecca.

Luna Pizzeria opened recently, somewhat of a departure for the owners, who also run the many Barnaby's throughout town. The small pizza joint in the Office Depot shopping center across Richmond from Pico's didn't jump on the thin crust Neapolitan pie bandwagon. Instead, the pizzas are crisp but doughy and topped with simple but quality ingredients. With low prices and fast service, it's a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

A little north on Kirby is Grace's, Johnny Carrabba's newest (and possibly last) venture, giving him a trio of restaurants each within walking distance of one another and each offering slightly different fare. While the original Carrabba's continues to receive praise for making consistently good Italian food, Grace's got off to a rockier start, confusing many with an eclectic menu (eclectic being a euphemism for crazy) featuring everything from Americanized Chinese food to gumbo. In spite of the unclear concept, though, the River Oaks crowd seems to be loving the place. And because Carrabba owns the property, it's not likely that the restaurant will be going anywhere any time soon.

That brings us to West Ave. I haven't been here long enough to witness the full evolution of that corner of Kirby and Westheimer, but I've heard the same things that all of you likely have--the prices of the apartments are too high to fill them up, and the "mixed use" concept has never quite worked right. The flashy Katsuya closed last year and made way for the slightly less flashy Nara, a modern Korean restaurant from Uptown Sushi's Donald Chang. It's good, but it doesn't seem to be drawing the crowds necessary to maintain a business in the pricey development.

At first, Trenza seemed to have everything going for it--a celebrity chef, a great location, an interesting menu. And yet it continues to get poor reviews. The restaurant is all flash with little substance. We may be wrong (and we hope we are, as we'd never wish ill on a restaurant), but we hear the Latin fusion spot isn't long for this world.

When Taco Milagro closed last May due to increasing rents, the space sat empty for a long while until Local Foods decided to open a second location there in March. So far, so good for the hip eatery. Unfortunately, for just about every new spot that's opened, something else has closed.

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In the past few weeks, we've seen the demise of nightclub Roak, bars OTC and Hendrick's and Cafe Express, all of which will be torn down to make way for a new mixed use development on that stretch of Kirby Drive. You know, because West Ave, the other mixed use development on Kirby, is doing so well.

Earlier this week, we got news that popular brunch spot Saint Genevieve suddenly closed, and reps for the Van Delden Group who own the bar/restaurant told CultureMap "They simply decided to close Saint Genevieve so they can focus on other projects in their pipeline." Apparently they have projects in the works in Austin, and they swear they have more on the horizon for Houston in 2014 and 2015, though two of their other local concepts have closed in the past year.

On the heels of Saint Genevieve's shuttering came news that Brio Tuscan Grill had also closed, shocking no one who's had the overpriced Italian food from the chain restaurant. Based on TABC reports that CultureMap linked to in their story about Brio's closing, it looks like many restaurants and bars in the area just aren't doing enough sales to keep up with the astronomical rent costs. Like others, we don't think these will be the last businesses to exit Kirby--and West Ave--in the near future.

Not that we're particularly sad to see Brio or Roak or Saint Genevieve go, but the turnover rate on the block is worrisome. CultureMap predicts that outsiders with money may come in and establish restaurants in some of the now-empty spaces on Kirby, but does that really enhance the local dining scene? Do we need more chains a la Eddie V's and Del Frisco's dominating the neighborhood? It clearly didn't work with Brio.

It's true that all neighborhoods go through transformations. Drive through Midtown and you'll likely see just as many empty spaces and lots as occupied ones. It's the rate with which things are turning over in Upper Kirby that's alarming. And with the projected rent increases, we're left to wonder what kind of businesses can last in the increasingly swanky 'hood.

What do you see for the future of Upper Kirby?

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